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11 'Taboo' Symptoms of Living With Bipolar Disorder

Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

Written by Felix Kalvesmaki.

Bipolar disorder is a tricky beast to tame. In my experience, my manic episodes — or my “highs” — have completely different symptoms than my depressive episodes — my “lows.” Because of this, my list of symptoms is long, and they change on a given month, week or even day.

Some of them are to be expected: manic episodes give me a dangerous degree of confidence, be it at work or school or in my social life. My depressive episodes make it difficult to get out of bed sometimes, much less go about normal, day-to-day tasks like showering, going to class or eating a healthy meal. Reese’s peanut butter cups are an OK breakfast, right?

However, there are quite a few symptoms and consequences I’ve experienced that are rather unexpected. They’re not ones you can quickly glean from a pamphlet or learn about in an introductory conversation with a psychologist. I’ve only learned of them through my lived experience with mania and depression, and I’m still working on how exactly I should go about managing them.

I think part of the reason these symptoms were unforeseen to me is because, well, you can’t outline everything someone should expect when dealing with a mental illness in a diagnostic textbook. It’s just not possible. However, I also believe it’s because we’re a little nervous to discuss the symptoms of bipolar disorder that embarrass us, make us look “crazy,” or might give the disorder a bad rep. This shouldn’t stop us from discussing them, though. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we should discuss it with more detail. We can only stop the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder by demystifying it.

In the spirit of this, The Mighty asked our bipolar disorder community to name some symptoms of bipolar disorder that they thought were “taboo” or difficult to talk about. Of course, not everyone experiences bipolar disorder in the same way, but if you have any of these symptoms, know you’re not alone. 

Here’s what our community shared with us:

1. “Cleanliness” While Manic

“I once scrubbed my entire basement carpet with a dish brush during a manic episode.” – Katie P.

“Obsessive cleaning and orderliness. When I’m manic, I’m obsessed with order and perfection. Since I’m often not sleeping, I stay awake all night scrubbing the floors or the bathroom tile until my hands are raw or completely re-organizing my closet at 3 a.m. because wouldn’t it be nice to have it sorted by color? My family loves it because the house is spotless but refuse to acknowledge it’s because I’m sick and that I need help at that time.” — Sarah D.

2. “Messiness” While Depressed

“Over-organizing when manic but being unable to sustain it when depressed. So then everything just stays a mess until the cycle repeats because things need to be over-organized, [since] they have been a mess for so long.” — Kylee S.

“The way that I can’t even bring myself to get washed and dressed on really bad days… I just don’t have the mental energy to function properly.” — Heather P.

3. Fatigue

“The amount of damn sleep I need with meds. Should be sleeping 14 hours on them, but to hold down a job, this isn’t viable, so I’m in a constant cycle of work, nap, eat, sleep, repeat.” — Naomi S.

4. Explosive Anger 

“Explosive temper. I love my husband, but I find myself snapping at him when my episodes are bad. He’s usually understanding, but I still feel awful for losing my temper with someone I love so much. I just get so irritable sometimes, especially when I’m in sensory overload.” — Kara N.

“It doesn’t get talked about much in a clinical setting, so anger and rage have become my taboo symptoms. I can tell when I’m starting a hypomanic phase because I’ll start getting really irritable. Then I just feel like shouting at everyone. My road rage is almost constant. I start alienating people.” — Beth S.

5. Substance Use

“I abused alcohol. I would drink when I was depressed and felt alone. I drank when I was manic and would make a fool of myself. I always saw it as having fun, but after an incident, I realized I had to stop drinking. I’m trying hard to fight it and to deal with my issues without it.” — Kat C.

6. Hypersexuality

Hypersexuality, which will make you think horrible things about yourself. Decades later, the shame affects your happiness, saps your self-imagery, makes you hide ugly truths from your beloved. Depression is the hardest part, and memories of past life choices affect daily life. While drinking coffee. While watching TV, while cooking or cleaning or gardening. And especially when kissing or hugging or doing anything intimate with your love… the very things that should make you feel good, and happy, and loved. It has been close to two decades since I was promiscuous and sexually out of control. It still makes me feel bad, every. Single. Day.” — LuAnn C.

“We don’t talk about that hardly ever, but it’s so dangerous and scary for the one experiencing it. It needs support, but it’s so taboo that it gets ignored and left out because of shame and fear. I struggle, but I’m so scared to talk about it, even with people who are bipolar for fear I will be taken the wrong way, or they’ll think I’m flirting or something.” — Kaitlyn R.

7. Impulsive Behavior

Spending habits are definitely a taboo topic. I swing between thinking everything is fine and I am flushed with money, to being completely out and feeling like the whole world is collapsing on me. I teach high school personal finance … I feel like a total hypocrite when my own mental health issues make me totally disregard doing as I teach.” — Isa H.

8. Self-Harm

“Cutting. You’re seeking attention and overreacting if you do it, but if you don’t, you’re not actually depressed. You just can’t please people.” — Shayna K.

9. Hyperfixation

Hyperfixation. There is nothing more stressful for me than feeling the need to look at the price of gas on the sign near my house. If I miss it, I turn around to look. Or if I am planning a trip, I need everyone going to research it to death or I get downright angry, and it can’t be healthy. I wish I could just enjoy things or not like things and it not always consume me.” — Lauren R.

10. Psychosis

“Psychosis and psychotic features. Many people hear of manic ‘delusions’ such as thinking they are extraordinary, divine, or invincible. But I have auditory and visual hallucinations that make my mixed episodes ‘catastrophic’ (to quote my doctors).” — Laurynn B.

“Hallucinations. I get psychosis symptoms with some pretty wicked hallucinations fairly frequently during bouts of depression or mania, and it’s really scary. I feel like I’m the only one because nobody ever talks about it. I’m currently on an antipsychotic med that is helping a lot, but it took me a long time to tell anyone I was having these issues because I thought they would just lock me away.” — Laura C.

11. Being in a Mixed-State

“Mixed state-rapid cycling. Pretty much turns me into a volatile, unpredictable person. A sort of Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” — Camilla B.

Like I said above, bipolar is a tricky beast to tame, and these symptoms showcase the complex nature of a mental illness that looks different for everybody. However, no matter how your bipolar rears its head, it’s important to note that your mental illness is never taboo. And it is certainly nothing to feel ashamed of.

Do you have a “taboo” symptom of bipolar disorder that you want to talk about more? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

Unsplash photo via Grace Madelin