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How 'Grey's Anatomy' Got Bipolar Disorder Right

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When I hear a TV show or book has a storyline with bipolar disorder in it I typically cringe because they get it all wrong. These storylines are overdramatic, inaccurate or portray people with bipolar disorder as villains. Usually, these characters have an unreliable job history (or no job at all) and a lack of any real relationships. That’s why when watching “Grey’s Anatomy” take on a bipolar storyline I was so happy. I finally saw myself represented.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the nearly two-decade long phenomenon, there’s a character, Dr. Andrew DeLuca, who has bipolar disorder — presumably type one. And let me tell you, this is the most refreshing take on bipolar disorder I’ve seen from any media source.

First of all, they don’t downplay DeLuca’s symptoms, but they don’t make the show revolve around him either. He isn’t messing everything up or killing patients, but actually quite the opposite.

The show started by showing him in a depressive episode. But it was subtle. So subtle, in fact, that I didn’t even see a mental health storyline coming. And sometimes with bipolar disorder, that’s how depression can be. Mild and laying in bed all day. Having no motivation. Losing interest in things that you once loved. But the show didn’t emphasize this to make it the DeLuca show.

However, suddenly he was manic. Again, it started out as subtle, but his symptoms grew more and more severe the longer he went on untreated. One example of his manic storyline is walking miles and miles in freezing cold temperatures to get an organ that was needed for a transplant. He came back and his hands were frostbitten and lips were blue. At this point, everyone was beginning to see something was wrong. But what I loved about the storyline is that it was met with concern and compassion. He wasn’t vilified. The characters on the show didn’t turn away, but rather wanted to help.

Then came the time when people doubted DeLuca due to having bipolar disorder. He claimed a child was part of a human trafficking scandal, but due to his mania and illness no one believed him. They all thought it was another manic claim and part of his hysteria. Except, he ended up being right.

Again, this hits home. Because I know how I can sound when I’m manic. I know I can lose touch with reality and have some really wacky ideas. But that doesn’t mean all of my judgements are wrong. Sometimes, mania helps you see things the “normal” eye misses because your mind is thinking so quickly.

Seeing DeLuca not be wrong about the human trafficking case was a surprise because I thought it was definitely just another attempt to make people with  bipolar seem “neurotic” and “paranoid” when they’re symptomatic. But it wasn’t. It was showing the opposite. It was showing that bipolar can be symptomatic but also absolutely right.

Another time this happened on the show was when DeLuca solved the mystery of what was wrong with another doctor, Richard Webber. He realized a rare case of cobalt poisoning was killing him due to a hip replacement he got years ago when no one else could figure out the answer. And it showed that he did this by hyper fixating on the problem, not sleeping at all and having the utmost confidence that he could solve any problem the world threw at him — all signs of mania.

So many times while I was watching the storyline unfold I wanted to cry, not because of the emotional aspect — although it was quite emotional — but because for the first time I felt my diagnosis was being accurately represented in the media.

For example, DeLuca’s world crumbled from under him. He eventually lost his job, lost his relationship and, for a while, lost his credibility. But that didn’t turn the characters away from him. The entire time, all everyone wanted from him was seek help.

And the latest episode showed his breakdown as he finally hit rock bottom and realized he needed it. It showed the frustration, the despair and the heartbreak that shows up when you come to terms with the fact that you have a serious illness and need help. Because take it from someone who’s been there — it’s not easy to accept that your illness is out of your control.

The show has hinted that DeLuca will still have a job at the hospital after being treated by psychological professionals and made sure to show the compassion from his sister, coworkers, boss and ex-girlfriend throughout the entire duration of the show. While there were periods of frustration from others, it wasn’t because they thought DeLuca was a bad person because he had bipolar disorder. People were only frustrated because he wouldn’t get help, and I personally think most people with the condition have been in that position.

As a bipolar person, this is the storyline I’ve been waiting to see from a TV show. This is the storyline I’ve needed to see from a TV show. Because in my eight years of being diagnosed, despite searching for movies, books and TV shows that showed what my diagnosis was like, none of them ever quite got it right.

None of them showed that bipolar people could be successful and get degrees — and even be medical professionals. No other media source showed me that people with my diagnosis could still be a good person. No other media showed me that people with bipolar disorder can do good and have a pure heart — or that their sole cause in the storyline isn’t to create chaos.

But through DeLuca, “Grey’s Anatomy” did. It found a way to represent people like me. It found a way to represent people with bipolar who still get their degree, hold down a long-term job and have a support system that cares about them deeply.

I didn’t realize how much I needed that representation until it was given to me. I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me to see a character with my illness and my illness’ severity portrayed on a mainstream TV show without being vilified or created for the sole purpose of seeming “crazy” or “a problem.”

So, if you’re looking for an accurate representation of “high-functioning” bipolar disorder, start with “Grey’s Anatomy.” It can give you so much insight into how successful someone can be — how they can even appear “normal” at first — yet still have this illness that can destroy them if they don’t take care of it.

People with bipolar disorder are not inherently bad. They do not always cause chaos in the world around them. They are not always “crazy” or “wrong” when they are symptomatic. They’re just people. And “Grey’s Anatomy” nailed that on the head. And I’ve never been more grateful.

Image credit from ABC’s YouTube Channel

Originally published: November 20, 2020
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