While most people know those with bipolar disorder experience periods of “ups” and “downs,” it can be hard to understand exactly what that means, since we all experiences mood fluctuations to some extent. But bipolar disorder isn’t an everyday shift from happiness to sadness — its periods of depression and mania can be much more extreme and sometimes debilitating.
Bipolar disorder isn’t a scary thing, either. There are several ways to manage it, and many go on to live fulfilling lives riding its waves.
To get a better idea of what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, we asked people in our mental health community to describe what it’s like.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. “Imagine feeling extremely happy and on top of the world but not able to truly appreciate the happiness because you know that soon (could be seconds, minutes, hours or days later) the happiness will be replaced with complete sadness. It’s only a matter of time before you are back to square one with the one demon that’s never gone and is always around the corner: depression.” — Hannah C.
2. “One day I have to miss work because I can’t get out of bed, and I spend the whole day wanting to die (even though I know I won’t, the thought is always there). The next day I’m staying up 24 hours taking on two jobs and spending more money than I have, running errands, loving life. It’s unpredictable and difficult because it’s not the kind of illness people understand. People look at it as a really bad illness and they don’t want to talk about it at all.” — Cailey C.
3. “It’s not always a slow spiral between depressed and manic moods. For some it could be rage and manic or depression and rage. Or any combination of those. On or off medication, it’s a battle to keep a balance of all the emotions.” — Tina B.
4. “Bipolar disorder doesn’t look the same in each person with bipolar disorder. Just because you know someone who knows someone with bipolar doesn’t mean I am like them or experience it the same way.” — David W.
5. “It’s a constant question mark. There are some days depression takes its turn and you can’t get out of bed. There are some days there is a weird burning sensation inside of you and you can’t eat or sleep or think straight and you feel alive and out of control. And there are the days you are trying to juggle the extremes and it requires all you have to make it through, though the smallest thing (a question, a song, a thought you keep obsessing) can make you fluctuate to one of the extremes.” — Livia S.
6. “It’s like one moment you’ve got your future figured out and you feel like yes! I’m finally doing something with my life and you start imagining about the success and how it would make people around you proud of you and then boom! Next moment all you can think about is how you’re good for nothing, and there’s nothing you could do with your life and no one expects anything from you anyway, and what’s the point of life in itself, and you just let go of that little hope that brightened your life for few seconds.” — Eesha I.
7. “I don’t trust if it’s joy or mania, so I fear it instead of leaning into any pleasure. And the burst of energy and creativity is tarnished by unrelenting disorganized thoughts.” — Jenn R.
8. “It’s not as simple as the mood swings everyone goes through. I’m fighting for control over my mind to not be the ‘suicidal me’ and not be the ‘manic me.’ The only time there is ‘just me’ is when I am stable on my meds and going to therapy. Before I was stable, I would have days upon days where I could not get out of bed physically… and the thoughts of death were so overwhelming no other thoughts could penetrate. Then, all of a sudden, I would be infused with so much energy, but it was too much. So much so that I would become so irritable, and angry and impulsive. Then the worst days when I would bounce back and forth with in hours from suicidal and crying to feeling like a God and planning on flying (literally, that was my delusion). Before meds, on those days where the alter-me was semi-quiet, I was able to pretend to function like anyone else. But every so often on those days I would have to get away and hide because an episode was upon me. It’s a fight. Every day.” — Julie J.
9. “I read this after sleeping for 18 hours and haven’t had a shower in a week and a half. It’s not even recognizing who you are sometimes. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing someone else. It’s hiding behind silence so you no one will call you ‘crazy.’ It’s every emotion rolled into a ball and you wait to see which ‘you’ comes out first.” — Ashley S.
10. “I never know what to expect for the day. I could be super depressed and not want to get out of bed one day and then jump out of my bed with joy the following day. It’s often difficult to distinguish sadness from depression and happiness from mania. It’s very unpredictable.” — Lisbet F.
11. “Bipolar is an emotional roller coaster. Every corner is a different emotion. While a roller coaster flips you upside down, bipolar flips the person’s life and world upside down. The climb up one hill to feeling better is what we all want. It’s when you’re on top looking at the steep descent to the bottom knowing you’re on your way there that affects your mind and body. This can last from hours to days and in so many cases longer. The faster the ride the scarier the experience. That is also true with bipolar disorder. I wake up fearing what the day might bring and go to bed praying to be better the next.” — Allison Q.
12. “I used to feel like I was constantly at war with myself, punishing myself for ‘letting myself’ become manic or depressed. Over the past year I’ve learned to be a little less harsh on myself, knowing a lot of it is out of my control. But sometimes I feel like I have to ‘prove myself’ to people that I’m more than just my diagnosis. One and half years, no relapse so far. And have a healthy, happy 5-month-old little boy!” — Maria H.
13. “Bipolar disorder is like being behind the wheel of a car with the gas peddle stuck down. You have control of the steering, but you can’t slow down. You don’t want to be in the car, but you’re stuck there and you know it. So you attempt to avoid hitting other people for as long as you can, but it’s impossible to avoid everyone. Meanwhile you’re scared, crying and lonely in this out of control car just begging to be free of it, only to be even more inclined to stay in the car to avoid dealing with the devastation you’ve brought on other people. So you scream sorry at every person you hit but they can never hear you. Even if they could hear you, you’re fully aware of their inclination not to listen. This car ride continues to impound on itself, as more and more people are driven away from your path and roads are shut down, you are left to cruise alone in your out of control vehicle.” — Helena H.
14. “Bipolar is something that can be lived with and managed. I have learned that and always try to remember that. But it’s also hard to live with and almost equally hard to explain. Bipolar is being unsure if joy is really joy or if mania is creeping up. It’s doubting that it’s OK to be upset about something or that you can have a bad day because you fear it could be the start of a depression. It’s moments of doubt — total disbelief that you really have bipolar and feeling certain it’s all a sham and those meds and life changes are completely unnecessary. It’s trying to come to terms with the fact that bipolar can’t be past tense — even when you are stable you don’t get to say, ‘I had bipolar.’ You will always have it.” — Abigail J.
15. “For me, it’s like walking through a lighted tunnel and then suddenly having everything go dark… you feel trapped, scared and anxious not knowing when or if the lights will ever come on again. You feel lost and alone, uncertain of what is waiting for you in the dark. Often times, it feels like it would be easier just to stop moving forward and let the darkness consume you. For me, it’s usually a struggle to find the light again.” — Danielle C.
16. “It’s like two souls fighting over one body.” — Chino G.
17. “It’s like listening to music on a never-ending loop. The high notes are so high and the low notes so low that nobody around can hear. Sometimes I love the music, I’m in it, I dance as it plays for me and only me. Sometimes it’s haunting, vicious and it relentlessly encourages me to dance with the devil. Although sometimes — most of the time — the music is just the music that everybody else can dance to and I’m me. That’s my favorite.” — Lucy D.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.