The official definition for bipolar disorder – a psychiatric illness characterized by both manic and depressive episodes – is, in my opinion, misleading. The general public understands the two main symptoms stated in the definition, but are mostly unaware that bipolar exists on a spectrum. Simply stated, an individual with bipolar disorder isn’t just either depressed or manic, but experiences all the moods in between the two extremes.
In addition to having the normal emotional range that every human has, we also have all the moods created by cycling back and forth. In all honesty, I have no idea what to call the five-minute period in which I go from incredibly happy to unreasonably irritated to melancholy, and end up crying.
However, even that emotional mess isn’t the most problematic issue in living with bipolar disorder. The single biggest issue that I see is when everything is just fine. In other words, the biggest issue is being entirely symptom free.
The Problem With Being “Normal” While Bipolar
First, “normal” is an annoying concept. In America, for example, it’s normal, acceptable, and encouraged to bring a dying trees into our homes every December. For the purpose of this article, we have to consider that, whether we embrace the concept of normal or not, society has behaviors that it collectively views as normal and abnormal.
When a person with bipolar disorder is manic, society recognizes this behavior as extreme. The same holds true with suicidal depression. Even the lesser-known symptoms of irritability and grandiosity are widely recognized by the general public as abnormal.
As a person living with bipolar moods that travels back and forth along the spectrum, I can say there is a distinct period of time when I am “normal.” I’m in control of my emotions, symptom free, and able to fully use all of my mental faculties.
It’s during this period that a person with bipolar will complete projects, solidify relationships, and accomplish the typical things that society expects. But, there is a dark side to everything being just fine and having no abnormal issues to speak of: people around us think the more extreme symptoms of bipolar disorder are simply bad behavior we can control. After all, they know we can control ourselves if we wanted to. They have seen us do it on multiple occasions.
The Burden of Society’s Misconception Falls on People With Bipolar Disorder
If you’re living with bipolar disorder, it’s a well understood fact that society’s misconceptions become our problem. When I had my first long depression spell as a teenager, my father pulled me out of bed and ordered me to go to school. When I explained I was sick, he told me that “being sick of school” was not a real illness. He told me I was too smart and capable to refuse to get an education.
In his defense, why wouldn’t he think that? He personally witnessed me excel in academics. He knew I was intelligent, so this behavior had to be laziness. In his mind, there was simply no other explanation.
I liken the symptoms of bipolar disorder to an intermittent car issue. Have you ever taken your car to the mechanic and the problem you’re having can’t be replicated? It’s frustrating beyond words, but at least the mechanic believes that there is a problem.
Can you imagine if instead of working with you to fix your car, they instead looked at you and said, “Hey, I saw you drive it in, so there obviously isn’t an issue.”
Or, perhaps more analogous would be if the car wasn’t running at all and the mechanic said, “I saw this car running yesterday, so I know you can start it if you wanted to.”
There are many things that make life hard for someone living with bipolar disorder, but the biggest issue I’ve ever faced is that people remember me when I’m at my best when they see me at my worst. Since they don’t believe I’m sick, they tell me snap out of it and make better decisions.
If I was always sick, the people around me would have a better chance of realizing it. But because they didn’t realize I needed help, they didn’t offer any. Instead, they focused on what I could be instead of what I was. And I can’t blame them, because I did the same thing.
I believe the most problematic issue with this illness is that no one realizes you’re sick. Because, just like the car at the mechanic, bipolar disorder’s symptoms are intermittent.
Gabe Howard is a popular speaker, writer, and advocate who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is an award-winning writer and the creator of the official bipolar shirt. (Get yours now!) Gabe can be reached on Facebook, via email, or via his website, www.GabeHoward.com.
via bpHope – bp Magazine Community