distressed young womanRecently, I heard the term decompensate for the first time. The therapist seemed surprised that I had never heard it.

Given the definition of compensate – to reimburse – I thought decompensate might mean something along the lines of having your disability payments taken away. You might say something like “Social security just decompensated me, now what am I going to do?” or “Bipolar disorder decompensated me, and now I have no money to pay the bills.”

The therapist explained that decompensation is what occurs when everything you’re doing to prevent a mood episode (to compensate for the illness) just isn’t enough.

When I mentioned to Dr. Fink that I had never heard the word, she said I must be a big dummy. Well, she didn’t actually use those words. Here’s what she really said.

From Dr. Fink…

The word “decompensation” is so commonly used in psychiatry that I didn’t even stop to think that it might seem kind of odd to people. But I would describe it as meaning that someone who has an illness that they have been compensating for (with medications, treatment, family support and all the other strategies they might be using) begins to show symptoms again, so they have “decompensated” – fallen backward from the level of compensation they had previously experienced.

The word decompensating is also used in other fields of medicine; for example, if someone with cardiac disease who is doing well on their medications begins to show symptoms again, that’s referred to as decompensating. In the ICU, staff often refer to someone as decompensating if their condition is deteriorating.

Are there any terms that you’ve heard in your journey with bipolar that seemed kind of odd to you at first? If so, please share.

Photo by attercop311, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.