World bipolar day: March 30th 2022 – the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as having bipolar disorder – is world bipolar day. The world comes together to raise awareness of a mental health disorder that affects millions of people worldwide, each in a distinctive way.
Bipolar disorder has an impact that goes far beyond numbers. One of the tougher parts about living with bipolar disorder is that you can be going about your life, functioning pretty well, when a manic or depressive episode suddenly gets triggered. “Those episodes can last anywhere from two weeks to eight months or even longer, depending on how effective the treatment is,” says David Miklowitz, PhD, distinguished professor of psychiatry at UCLA Semel Institute and author of The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide.
World Bipolar Day
So, on World Bipolar Day, here are some aspects of bipolar disorder that are important to understand, so you can help combat social stigma:
- Bipolar disorder affects every aspect of life: It may be difficult to fully comprehend the toll bipolar disorder can take on someone because it is an invisible illness. As bp Magazine vlogger Natasha Tracy describes in a powerful video, it can be as crippling –impacting relationships, working, and all aspects of everyday life—from sleeping to showering.
- Bipolar disorder has many causes, from genetics to life events: After a study that spanned nearly two decades, a team from the University of Michigan found that there is no single genetic change, life event, or chemical brain imbalance that could be the root cause of bipolar disorder. Many times, it is a combination of several biological and environmental factors that can trigger bipolar disorder.
- Bipolar disorder rarely exists alone: As if a mood disorder that involves long-spanning depressions and manic episodes wasn’t enough to deal with, bipolar disorder can also come with other physical and psychological conditions to worry about. These include metabolic disorders and migraines.
- Everyone’s bipolar disorder is different: Bipolar disorder is like fingerprints and snowflakes—no two people have the exact same symptoms and each diagnosis can vary greatly. However, there are two main types of bipolar disorder: Bipolar I which is characterized by one or more manic episodes that last at least a week and require hospitalization; and bipolar II, which is characterized by more depressive episodes.
- There are many celebrities that live with bipolar disorder: Celebrities including Russel Brand, Demi Lovato, Richard Dryfuss, and Carrie Fischer used their high-profile platform to combat bipolar disorder stigma. Demi Lovato in particular is making headlines for bringing the CAST Foundation on her Tell Me You Love Me Tour. CAST is an extension of a Los Angeles-based mental health awareness organization that Demi says helped her stay sober for six years.
- There may be a creativity connection: Did you know that World Bipolar Day occurs on Vincent van Gogh’s birthday? Van Gogh, considered one of the most influential artists of all time, was posthumously diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Another famous face of creativity is Carrie Fisher, known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise. She’s considered a heroine for rebelling against mental health stigma.
- It is life-threatening, and support is vital: An estimated 1 in 5 people diagnosed with bipolar disorder dies by suicide. World Bipolar Day is an opportunity to show those living with the day-to-day challenges of this condition they are not alone, they have your support, and there is always hope.
What living with bipolar disorder is like
I was diagnosed with depression at a young age, and put on anti-depressants, naturally triggering manic bipolar episodes. It is not until I was in my late 30s that I was appropriately diagnosed and put on the right treatment.
Living with bipolar disorder may not be easy, but as van Gogh himself once said: “The beginning is perhaps more difficult than anything else, but keep heart, it will turn out all right.”
It is so hard to figure out who I am when I am unwell and having a bipolar episode. My character can change into someone I’m not. I have had experiences where I wanted to go to the police station because I thought I was doing something wrong when I wasn’t, and times when I should have gone to a police station when I was doing something wrong, but thought I wasn’t. I have raised my voice and gotten thrown out of work when I was unwell. I have decided to start smoking when unwell just because I thought it would help my stress levels. I have purchased pianos, tens of thousands of dollars worth of watches, glasses, pens, skydiving classes, overnight around the world trips, all at a whim.
I have also had arguments with friends and family that were so out of character that I’ve been told ‘it’s like I am a different person’ when I am unwell. I don’t know how to change this when I’m manic – it just happens.
When I am having a bipolar episode I am usually experiencing a hypomanic episode. My body is over producing adrenaline and I am on a natural high. It’s euphoric and it can feel great. The real problem is when I am coming down from this state of mind and everything feels so flat afterwards. I can also then see the logic of other people and the destruction I may have caused while I was experiencing the hypomanic episode. I wish I knew that just because I was enjoying myself, doesn’t mean everyone else was around me. They were affected by my thoughts and actions.
Some people with bipolar may experience it more frequently than others and on a more intense basis. Sometimes people misunderstand why we might get so angry about something that may not make much sense to another person. Bipolar can be a reason why we act this way.
Not an excuse
We are not always using bipolar as an excuse, sometimes you really need to think of it as a reason. For example, why do you drink water? Because you’re thirsty, right? Well we may act out sometimes because our brain is so overworked and it can feel like a monster is about to explode out of our chest. If you were in our position, you would also look at the way we respond to some things is a reason and it’s not an excuse.
We can feel so frustrated with life (especially if we are misunderstood) and in order to ground ourselves we may need a minute to ourselves and go outside and scream or hit a boxing bag rather than hurting someone else in the process. This helps us ground ourselves and move on with reality.
Sometimes people make the active decision to put us down and blame it on our bipolar. It hurts and we know that it is hard for people to understand the reality of bipolar when they don’t experience it themselves. The reality is that we can be oblivious to what other people may be feeling and it is so hard when we are punished for that. Bipolar can be a selfish disorder, especially when we are unwell. We don’t mean to hurt people.
A common misconception for people who experience mania or hypomania episodes is that it means we are happy. This is incorrect. We can get quite irritable and this can lead to a depressive manic episode. So we can be depressive but still have a lot of adrenaline in our system and that means we are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as walking around late at night by ourselves and attempting to harm ourselves.
Living with Bipolar
I was 19 years old when I first started experiencing symptoms of bipolar 1 disorder. I was having trouble sleeping; I noticed problems with my memory along with changes in my mood, but I couldn’t see that these things might actually go together to be part of a bigger picture. I have always known something was wrong but wasn’t sure what it was and she didn’t receive a diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder until I was 38 years old.
My story is not unique. It takes on average ten years from the time symptoms start to get an accurate diagnosis and it is often because of some of these challenges we are talking about; the fact that it can start relatively early in life, during teenage years or early adulthood years, and it is only generally when we feel depressed or down that we seek treatment, and not when manic episodes fill us with adrenaline.
Bipolar often goes on recognised for years because the symptoms can look like other symptoms; people usually present when they are in the depressive episode and again those symptoms can look like other conditions and we don’t often recognise or report those manic symptoms and that’s why it’s so important to be really honest and open with your health care provider and report all of your symptoms and the impact it is having on your life.
Knowing my condition forced me to prioritise my mental health. For me, it’s being aware of triggers, getting exercise, minimising stress, following my treatment plan, taking medications and keeping a mood diary. Most importantly, try not to dwell on things in the past – wishing my disorder was recognised earlier and avoiding regrets and hurts, instead focusing on making tomorrow a brighter place to be.
It is really something that can be manageable.