Do you have bipolar disorder or know somebody who does? What would change if you could learn how to turn depression and mania on and off whenever you wanted to? The entire way we look at bipolar disorder would change in profound ways. Some of them are beyond most people’s imagination, but a simple illustration will help you to see why some of us say bipolar is an advantage that we do not want to give up.
Please understand that I am not talking about people who do not know how yet say “snap out of it” or any other offensive phrase, but the actual ability to do it which is an incredibly advanced skill.
I have been openly sharing my journey and exploration of the possibilities with bipolar for over 10 years now. It seems that sometimes I push the boundaries a bit too far and am met with pretty hostile pushback. This is a dilemma for me because I want to help others but I am afraid that this time it may be perceived once again as going too far. Nonetheless I have been thinking about and working on this idea for the better part of this year and I feel it is the most significant breakthrough that I have made so far in my understanding of bipolar.
The Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center has just completed a pilot study of the Bipolar IN Order peer-directed online education program. They found it to be “the first psychosocial intervention that has improved awareness of mood symptoms (insight) in bipolar illness… If confirmed, these data would indicate that this peer-based psycho-educational intervention could produce quality of life benefits, when combined with appropriate medications, not obtained with psychopharmacological treatment alone.”
Nassir Ghaemi MD and his team at Tufts are directing a full follow-up study in January and are looking for 750 people to join. Participants take the Bipolar IN Order program for free and the research team tracks the progress over one year. All data is collected anonymously.and there are strong protections for each persons privacy built into the study.
The Bipolar IN Order program is a simple yet powerful education program that anyone can do in the privacy of their own home. The program includes:
I have long argued that the X-Men movies are a great metaphor for bipolar disorder. When X-Men: The Last Stand came out I wrote an article about how the X-Men’s struggle to control their “super powers” are analogous to our struggles with mania and depression. When the newest movie came out I was hoping to see further evidence in support of my ideas and was not disappointed.
There are so many parallels between X-Men: Days of Future Past and bipolar conditions that I could write several articles about them, but I want to just briefly mention a few and then focus in on the one that I find the most meaning in. The movie mentions meds, genetics, and mental difficulties, but the parallels to my own views on depression is uncanny.
Medication plays a central role in the movie. Hank uses a special formula to control his tendency to turn into “the beast.” Based on that formula, Hank creates a different version for the young Charles Xavier to use to control his condition. Young Charles takes too much and loses his ability to function at all. The parallel to common experience with psych meds is pretty obvious.
Later in the movie, young Charles tells Eric that the meds help him to walk. Eric mocks him for trading his power for the ability to walk and young Charles responds that he takes meds because it helps him sleep. The way he says it indicates that without the meds his life is unbearable.
There is a new effort to promote complete remission as the goal of treatment for people with bipolar in disorder and I am fundamentaly opposed to it. I have written about the topic many times, so I will repost the article that had the most discussion:
I wrote an article some time ago that I deviously titled “Why I Am Against Bipolar Meds” because I wanted to attract and call out both extremes in the debate. I argued for a moderate stance and we had a good discussion with all points of view respectfully considered.
My friend Dr. Nassir Ghaemi wrote an article recently in response and clarified some important points. Dr Ghaemi is the Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and is familiar with my work; he quoted some of it in his recent book, “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.” The discussion from his article went further into the med controversy, but also veered into new territory that I would like to address: My opposition to remission as the end goal of treatment.
One particular reply from Dr. Ghaemi gets to the crux of my issue; “In a substantial minority of people with bipolar disorder, about one-third, lithium produces complete remission of all symptoms. They never have another bipolar episode, and sometimes symptom, the rest of their lives. My point is, though, that even with full remission of all symptoms, people often need to make other efforts to get to functional recovery in life, repairing relationships and resuming work or other activities that they had not been able to complete in the past due to the interference of bipolar symptoms.”
As I am familiar with his work, I understand the point of view, but am concerned that some might misinterpret this to mean something different from what I believe he intends. Such a view is certainly not compatible with the premise of “A First Rate Madness,” so I am pretty sure Dr. Ghaemi does not mean what it may sound like to some. I am hoping this article will help clarify it …
Bipolar in disorder combined with anger is a very dangerous mix. The disordered person tends to become very volatile and can explode into a rage with little provocation. It is best for the person to avoid anything that might trigger anger until the disorder is in remission, but even then an angering stimulus can trigger another manic or depressive episode with anger as one of the troubling elements.
Bipolar people who have their condition in order have learned important lessons that can be applied to most of our experiences. For example, since we understand bipolar so well that we can function highly during depression and mania, we can also handle more intense states of anger without losing control.
As with every experience, most people can usually function fine when anger is at a very low intensity, but when the intensity of anger increases beyond their comfort zone they begin to lose the ability to choose their response to it. They act in ways that are less than optimal. They may even become a danger to themselves and others if the anger becomes too intense.
Individuals and organizations throughout the world are dedicated to the important work of removing the stigma that affects people with depression and bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, too many of them are replacing one type of stigma with another type that is making the situation worse. While advocating for others to stop judging those who suffer from the conditions, they are causing a self-stigma that increases and prolongs the suffering.
My friend Andy Behrman says, “If we want to eradicate stigma, we must first understand what stigma is: ignorance, fear & discrimination.” Of the hundreds of statements about stigma, this one captures it the best for me. Everything else is an offshoot of these three core problems.
There is certainly an incredible amount of ignorance surrounding depression and bipolar disorder. Even if we were able to clear up the many misperceptions about either condition, there is so much more we need to know to fully understand them. Depression and bipolar disorder affect every part of our lives (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and career/financial) and most people are aware of only a fraction of any of the parts.
We can be afraid of many things, but the worst fear is of the things we are ignorant of. The combination of fear and ignorance is so powerful that many people think fear is just another word for ignorance. They even have an acronym for it: FEAR – False Evidence Appearing Real. But when we understand fear and the role it plays in our condition, we can use it as a tool instead of letting it destroy us.
When most people talk about stigma, they are mostly concerned with discrimination and the role that ignorance and fear play in creating it. Discrimination holds us back from accomplishing what we are capable of because it robs us of opportunities that are available to others. We end up with a diminished life that is far below what should have been.
I learned about stigma soon after my first diagnosis with bipolar disorder. I began going to support groups to try to learn as much as I could about the condition and was told that I needed …
The part of our minds that most people identify with is the part that silently talks to us with a running commentary. We listen to it all day long. Let’s call it “The Talker.”
“The Talker” prefers pleasure over pain, happiness over sadness, winning over losing, health over sickness, and any of the other judgments that help us navigate our lives. Although it plays a critical role that we cannot live without, “The Talker” is stuck in the duality that makes us judge one thing better than another. It does not allow us to experience the world without judgment.
The central principle of mindfulness is to look at experiences without judgment. Adherents of mindfulness often speak of the part that practices mindfulness as “The Watcher.” It lives outside of the duality and sees everything as equally valuable. Mindfulness is a wonderful practice that increases awareness of what is really happening because “The Watcher” does not ignore or accentuate details based on preferences.
Unfortunately, many claim that mindfulness leads to happiness. As happiness and sadness are judgments based on preferences, this breaks with the whole concept of looking at our experiences without judgment. Mindfulness practiced properly does not lead to happiness; it leads to a greater awareness of whatever you are experiencing whether you like it or not.
We get a lot of calls from parents who are looking for help with their bipolar children. We make great progress within the first few visits, but too often run into an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. While the bipolar issues are certainly part of the problem, the family dynamics are a bigger issue.
Since the child has usually been diagnosed before contacting us, the parents assume all conflicts will be resolved as soon as the child is no longer in disorder. All issues are seen as being caused by bipolar disorder and the rest of the family is completely innocent; it is as if the diagnosis suddenly made everyone else perfect.
This does not happen when the parents have been diagnosed with any psychological issues. The parents recognize their own issues that need to be addressed and how those issues play a role in the conflicts. Even if the diagnosis is completely different from bipolar disorder, there is a recognition that nobody is perfect and we all have room for improvement.
Some call it ‘state specific memory,’ but after ten years and thousands of interviews I prefer to call it ‘bi-cycling delusion.’ It is the delusion that comes with the bipolar cycles and a primary reason people remain in disorder even with the best intentions.
Bipolar is a cyclical condition. We cycle through depressions and manias, sometimes reaching intensities that cause a crisis for us. We also periodically cycle into remission. It might be easier if the cycles were predictable, but for many of us they are completely random.
For far too many of us, each cycle has a state-specific delusion that keeps us from moving toward Bipolar IN Order. We all know about delusions that come with intense states of depression and mania, but it is the delusion that comes with remission that holds many back the most. It fools them into thinking they have bipolar under control when in reality they are just in one of the cycles.
I attended a great presentation at the APA annual conference in San Francisco about Achievement, Innovation, and Leadership in the Affective Spectrum. Four distinguished panelists gave presentations about their research into why people with bipolar disorder tend to exhibit advantages in some parts of their lives. They said it was the first time ever that the APA had such a discussion and it was a great honor to be a part of it.
First up was Sheri Johnson, PhD, who teaches at UC Berkeley and does basic research on mania. Her talk was about how people with bipolar disorder are more reactive to rewards and goals in their lives. They tend to work harder toward such goals and refuse to give up long after “normal” people do. Dr. Johnson is currently conducting studies to understand the greater reactivity to success in this population, using paradigms drawn from neuroimaging, emotion, information-processing, and impulsivity literatures. She is also considering other psychological traits that might relate to outcomes in bipolar disorder, including stress reactivity, emotion regulation, and social dominance. She believes that figuring out why mania is linked to success will lead to better ways to predict manic episodes.