Living with bipolar disorder is awful. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t suffer from it. Even those of us who have it aren’t really able to fully understand this loathsome disease. One minute we think we have it down, that we’re able to predict our patterns. Then the next we’re experiencing moods and emotions that are completely unfamiliar. Sometimes these new feelings are wonderful and you feel larger than life. Then it feels like you’ll never be able to take a full breath again. Despite the enigma that surrounds bipolar disorder, there are some simple truths that we, as patients, have to accept.
1. There is no cure
I should say that there is no cure “yet.” There are numerous studies being conducted to figure out exactly what causes bipolar disorder. From genetics to brain structure to psychiatry, the effort to better understand this disease is making progress. For now, though, we have to depend on treatment rather than cure. This includes medication and therapy. There are a variety of medication combinations available to help us find stability as best we can, but we’ll probably have to take them for the rest of our lives.
2. You need help
If you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it means you have an illness. It does not mean that you are broken or weak. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you go to the doctor. You get medication and a list of things you can change in your lifestyle to reduce the symptoms. Same thing applies here, only it’s a different kind of specialist. Please don’t see your gastroenterologist for bipolar disorder.
It can take a while to see positive change with treatment, but keep at it. In the meantime, build up your treatment team. Check out your options for therapy and make sure you have social support to help you out during rough times. Don’t refuse their help and don’t hate them for trying.
3. It can get worse
This is probably my biggest fear. I’m mostly high-functioning right now, but there always seems to be something lurking around the corner that might undo that.
If you’ve experienced one episode of mania, you’re almost guaranteed to have another. Psychosis is a major part of bipolar disorder, with roughly 60% of patients experiencing a loss of touch with reality at some point in their lives. Hospitalization for depression is also a possibility, especially considering that 50% of bipolar disorder patients attempt suicide at least once.
Your bipolar disorder may get worse, but the best way to keep that from happening is to take your meds and follow your treatment plan.
4. It rarely shows up alone
The vast majority of people with bipolar disorder (we’re talking 95%) have more than one illness. The tag-along illnesses also tend to be psychological. The most common of these are substance abuse (60%), anxiety (50%), ADHD (30%), personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (20%) and eating disorders (14%).
There are also physical illnesses that are comorbid with bipolar disorder. Some of these include migraine headaches, heart disease, type II diabetes, asthma and arthritis.
5. “Frustrating” is putting it mildly
I’m one of those people who gets migraines. I also have asthma. These are disorders I have to live with, but not all the time. I don’t always have a migraine (thankfully), but I do always have bipolar disorder. It touches everything, every day.
Even when your bipolar disorder symptoms are under control, you have to constantly monitor what you’re feeling and doing so that you don’t trigger an episode. When depression and mania break through, you have to fight to maintain control at all.
Manic and super irritated that no one is as competent as you? Depressed and wish you could muster up the energy even to take a shower? There are (possibly literal) voices in your head trying to distort your reality. You start to question every feeling you’ve ever had and every action you’ve ever taken.
At some point, you’re not even sure what it even means to be “you.”
Photo credit: Courtney Carmody