What It's Like to Have the Other Type of Bipolar Disorder


I have bipolar II disorder. This is my story.

First, some background. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive illness, and many people still know and refer to it that way. The term “bipolar” reflects the concept that there are two extremes to the continuum of mood disorders, and some people swing dramatically from one to the other. According to this definition, clinical depression by itself is “unipolar,” occupying only one end of the spectrum.

Depression is to sadness as a broken leg is to a splinter. Depression sucks the life from a person, mutes all emotions except misery, denies any possibility of joy or even contentment and makes life seem meaningless or impossible. This is hell.

Mania is to ordinary happiness as diving off a cliff is to diving off a diving board. Mania brings exhilaration, ambition, confidence, abandon and invincibility, with no brakes. It is hell on wheels.

Oscillating between the two extremes, that’s bipolar disorder, type 1. It is a serious illness. Left untreated, it can cause destruction of families, careers and more. It can lead to psychosis or suicide. The treatments for it are no picnic either. A severe case of bipolar disorder often requires hospitalization. If the symptoms can be controlled with medication, then the patients must have frequent blood tests to assure that the drug is present in the right quantity.

When I was (incorrectly) diagnosed with unipolar depression, I used to wish that I were bipolar, on the theory that at least then I could accomplish something. Boy, was I wrong about that. Plans made in mania never come to fruition. They are started, rethought, abandoned, exchanged for something grander and ultimately fizzle out when the mania wears off.

My diagnosis actually made some sense at the time, as I never experienced anything like the manic highs. All I got were depressive lows. This leads us at last to bipolar II disorder. The mood swings are not as extreme, the lows less debilitating and the highs less overwhelming. The person with bipolar II stays closer to a baseline of normal mood, but still experiences swings back and forth.

Technically, the mini-lows are called dysthymia and the mini-highs are called hypomania. In my case, the lows were just as low as in unipolar depression, but I never got the mini-jags of buoyancy that accompany hypomania. Instead, these feelings, came out sideways, as anxiety. My brain was still racing with little control, but in a different direction. Instead of elation and purpose, I was beset by in worries, fears and catastrophizing.

One of the difficulties with treating bipolar disorder (of either type) is trying to find a medication or a combination of medications that will level out the person’s moods. Usually this requires more than one drug, and finding the right mix or cocktail of chemicals usually requires more than one drug. It takes a great deal of trial and error. In the meantime, the mood swings continue.

At this point, my bipolar II is fairly well-controlled on medication. I still have spells of depression. Now, they last at most a week and sometimes just a day or two. Untreated, they could last months or years. I still have anxiety too. However, I have the medication I take for that so I don’t feel like I’m about to jump out of my own skin.

Most of the time, I’m fairly high-functioning. I can write, work and earn a living. I have a great marriage and a number of friends, including some who are closer than family to me. I have never been hospitalized, nor have I had electroshock (though that was a near thing). Before I got my proper diagnosis and treatment, I would have not believed this to be possible. My goal in life was simply to stay out of a psychiatric hospital as long as I could or at least until I qualified for Social Security Disability.

I’m sharing these experiences with you today because I believe mental disorders should not be hidden or viewed with shame and horror as they have been in the past and sometimes the present.

It’s undeniable that there is a stigma associated with having mental illness. Going public with it entails a risk. I’ve seen the fixed “smile and back away slowly” reaction. I’ve seen sudden turnarounds in my work performance evaluations, but I’ve also seen the, “Me too!” response.

There is strength in numbers. As more of us who live with psychiatric conditions talk about it and share our stories, the more we build understanding. Perhaps, we also encourage those who are “roller-coastering” to seek treatment.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of it: Bipolar II disorder is a mental illness. I have it and live with it every day. I do not go around threatening the safety of other people or my own. I take medication for it. I know I will likely have to for the rest of my life, and I’m OK with that. I hope that eventually the rest of the world will be, too.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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