10 Things I Need the People in My Life to Understand About Bipolar Disorder
I have (very) recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition in which I have shown symptoms of for many years (and ultimately has left me being hospitalized on various occasions), but was dismissed by my CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) and instead led to various different mood disorders being diagnosed, including general depression, clinical depression and psychotic depression. On this journey, I have found there are many misconceptions about this disorder, and it has made it really difficult to get people to understand what is actually going on.
Here are 10 things I wish they could know.
1. I can make my own decisions, please don’t try to take decisions out of my hands.
Yes, I have a severe mental health condition. However, I am capable. I am a student and I’m definitely not clueless, especially when it comes to my condition. Please do not assume I cannot make my own decisions and I need you/others to make important decisions on my behalf. If I’m struggling to make a decision and I ask for your help, advise, but please do not give your advice unless I ask. It may sound rude, but if someone tries to lecture you on a condition they have little understanding of, then you would understand how difficult and demoralizing it can be.
2. Do not act like I’m only using my mental illness as an excuse.
A big thing for me is that I do not like to use my condition as an excuse to get out of things. For example, at college if I ask a teacher for a deadline extension, you can be sure I’m struggling an extreme amount. I may have had an extreme depressive episode where brain fog becomes a mega problem, and forgot to do the work, or I might not even be able to move, let alone work. Please do not undermine this. Please understand how hard it is for me tell someone about my condition, let alone use it as an excuse.
3. My condition, my choice.
I live with bipolar, not you. This means that unless I am truly a risk to myself or others and need to receive treatment against my will (which is up to medical professionals) and need to be detained under the Mental Health Act, then I take control over my treatment. This means I decide which medication to take (along with support from my psychiatrist and mental health team) and which therapies to have. Please do not try to force me to try a “natural remedy” or “magical cure” you read about, or tell me how amazing a therapy is. Unless you have bipolar (and even then, not always), I will not have the same symptoms as you. Every mental health condition is different, and treatment is not “one size fits all,” so what works for another person with a mental health condition may work for them and not for me, and vice versa.
4. I cannot control my moods, it is completely out of my control.
The true definition of bipolar is having extremes of moods. This condition, similarly to other medical conditions, is out of my control. Although there are certain things that have the potential to trigger an episode (such as stress, traumatic event or lack of routine), once I have entered an episode, I have no control over it. Especially when I’m experiencing the manic side of my condition, I am often not aware of what’s happening, but I can sometimes really enjoy not feeling so low, which comes with the depressive side. As I am not aware of what is happening, there is no way I can control it. I often need support from professionals to stop the episode from getting out of control.
Please do not yell at me and tell me to “behave myself.” In my mind I’m doing fine, I am naturally outgoing anyway. Don’t assume I’m manic and don’t tell me to just control myself. It is incredibly difficult to be in that mindset and even harder to hear people think it’s my fault.
5. I am so sorry if I miss an event, I probably wanted with all my heart to be there, I promise.
When I am in the depressive stage of my illness, the thought of social interaction feels as though I am trying to run a marathon in flip flops, aka nearly impossible. I try my hardest, and in all honesty the memories of interacting with my friends are held so dearly to me during this period and help to keep me going. In the past I put social interaction in front of my mental health and it led to me being about as fun as a led balloon. I felt as though I sucked the life out of the party and ended up in tears. In these periods, I need to have space, or stick to socializing with a few friends at a time as it helps to prevent sensory overload. See below for more information on my own version of hell.
6. Give me space if I need it, sensory overload is scary!
With bipolar and the mood extremes that come with it, for me irritability is a key symptom of both manic and depressive episodes. This irritability can be about anything, and I mean anything. Honestly, sometimes I’ve become so aggravated by someone moving their foot in class. It ended with me becoming so uncomfortable it triggered intensive anxious thoughts, me tapping a lot and the teacher telling the other student to stop. Other little things that have caused me to become overwhelmed include lights (the whole class had to be dark, thank goodness my teachers understand) and busy places, which can cause a full blown meltdown and leave me anxious for hours afterwards. When I am in these situations, I honestly do not care how silly I look. I am petrified and feel very out of control. For this reason, I may need space or act in a way which you’re not used to. I’m really sorry, but I will be OK soon! Ask me if there’s anything you can do, but please don’t crowd me, it makes the overload a lot worse.
7. Do not assume I’m manic when I’m happy. Mania and happy are two very different things.
A big big pet peeve for me is when I’m feeling positive and people mistake this for being manic. Honestly, if I’m manic, you would know about it. I’m more likely to take risks and act extremely recklessly. Although they share similar symptoms, me being happy is not a warning sign. It can make me really angry when people ask if I’ve taken anything, as it feels as though I’m not able to be happy as a result of my condition. Before I became ill, I was extremely optimistic and usually very hyperactive. Please do not assume that just because I’m happy or being excited for the future, I’m having an episode. I’m just being the happy person I sometimes miss.
8. If I’m either depressed/low or manic, do not assume I have not been taking my medicine.
This is probably one of the most important things I need my friends to know. I hate it when I’m having an episode and people say, “Why are you acting this way, you’ve stopped taking your medication haven’t you? I’m telling (insert teacher/friends name here) that you’re being irresponsible.” It’s tiring enough having to take medication with horrible side effects every single day, but to have people doubt if I’m taking it hurts. Medication is not 110 percent effective and symptoms can still be visible on some days. I’m responsible about taking it, and do not skip doses, so do not doubt me just because I don’t fit the ideal of “normal” at that particular time.
9. My mental illness can influence my physical health. It is not just all in my head.
People with bipolar are at a much higher risk of developing cardiac problems as well as problems with the endocrine system (such as increased risk of diabetes). This means I may need additional tests to make sure my physical health is doing OK. In addiction, medications for mental illness can have side effects. For me, they include drowsiness, irritability, weight fluctuations and vivid dreams. These side effects are both physical and mental. Looking at the side effects you have to understand that by choosing to take the medication with unpredictable side effects, I believe my illness is much worse left untreated.
10. Although I may be able to “get to grips” with my condition, it will never go away. Bipolar is extremely unpredictable.
Right now, bipolar is a lifelong condition. I will never be cured of the condition that has disrupted and derailed my life on way too many occasions. However, in time I can come to terms with it. I can begin to understand my triggers, how to avoid them and learn techniques to help decrease the impact episodes have on my daily life. This being said, bipolar is increasingly unpredictable. A trigger can be sudden or nothing can trigger it at all (thanks brain!) and I have to come to terms with that.
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Thinkstock photo via Tilly Gops