Just what is bipolar disorder exactly?

June 17, 2013

living with bipolar disorder

by: Tricia Chilcott

What is bipolar disorder?

What is bipolar disorder? Who gets it? What are the symptoms? What about medications? These
are all important questions about bipolar disorder, and I’m going to try and answer them here.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is ‘ a brain disorder that
causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day
tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and
downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in
damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide’.

Living with bipolar disorder

I know from experience just how much havoc being bipolar can create in your life. Since I was
diagnosed 8 years ago, I’ve had 4 hospital stays, with the first one lasting 6 weeks, and the most
recent stay lasting 3 weeks. This has been a huge burden on my family, and problematic in my
marriage as well. I made the decision to go off my meds back in December, and by February I
had crashed hard, thus landing me back in the hospital. It was not a pretty sight in the slightest.
Thanks to a good doctor and a wonderful husband, I’m back on my meds and doing fantastically.
But what about medications for bipolar? There are a number of medications avaialble, and
literally hundreds of ways they can be mixed together to try and find the perfect cocktail.
Medications include mood stabilizers such as lithium, anticonvulsants such as Lamictal, atypical
antipsychotics such as Abilify, and antidepressants such as Zoloft. One issue with medication
management is that many people with bipolar disorder have comorbid conditions, making
them need additional medications as well. For example, in addition to being bipolar, I also have
ADHD, PTSD, and anxiety, so my cocktail consists of Concerta, Welbutrin, Abilify, Klonopin,
Ambien, and Xanax. My psychiatrist is trying to convince me that I need Trileptal as well, but
it’s a battle he’s not winning.

Who gets bipolar disorder?

So who gets bipolar disorder? It is estimated that approximately 2% of the general population
has bipolar disorder whether diagnosed or not. According to the DSM-IV, there are actually
4 variations of bipolar disorder, which include Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Bipolar-NOS, and
cyclothymia. What do all of these mean? People with Bipolar I not only have the severe downs,
but they have severe ups as well, or they have what’s called a mixed state, which includes
features of both depressive and manic symptoms. People with Bipolar II don’t have the manic
highs, instead they swing from very depressed to hypomanic. Bipolar-NOS are people who have
symptoms, but don’t fall into either of the above two categories. And then cyclothemia is a mild
form of bipolar disorder, one in which the person experiences highs and lows, but not the very
low depressive states, and not the high manic states. You may also have genetic┬ápredisposition┬áto bipolar disorder. It’s been recently discovered that┬áthat bipolar disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia may all be linked to the same set of genes.

You are in excellent company

So what does this all mean for the bipolar patient? It can mean a lot of time spent with a doctor
figuring out medications. It can mean a lot of frustration as medications are sorted out and
therapy is started. But it also means you are in excellent company! You may feel alone in this battle, but many others have fought it and won. I’m sure you’ve heard of Abraham Lincoln, as well as Winston Churchill, and even Charles Dickens. Or perhaps you’ve heard of a lovely lady named Marilyn Monroe? Kurt Cobain? Or if you’re more current than that, how about Catherine Zeta-Jones? These creative geniuses all have or had bipolar disorder. Many bipolar patients are creative geniuses in their own right, but it comes with that hefty price tag of the extreme mood swings.

Don’t give up!

One thing many people living with bipolar disorder pride themselves on is having the ability
to walk that fine line between insanity and brilliance. We may stumble and fall off that tight rope occasionally, but there is hope for us, and we are not alone in our fight with this. There is support available, there is treatment that works, and recovery is possible. I am living proof of
this, as are many other successful bipolar people I know. So don’t give up! Don’t give in! The night is always darkest before the dawn, and when you’re in the pits of despair and want to give up, that is the darkest hour. But I promise you, the dawn will come, perhaps when you least expect it. You’ll find a medication that works, a treatment plan that is right for you, and you will see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I was in the pit of despair for a long time, but I pulled myself out of it with the help of medications and therapy. I know for a fact this can happen for others suffering from this disease as well. Keep the faith, and hold on tight to the knowledge that there is the right treatment plan for you, and you too can lead a productive life as well. Good luck, and God bless!

Image Credit: Spencer Williams