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Bipolar Disorder: Look both ways

This page added 15 April 2013

By Electra (ADAVIC Volunteer)

My mother, Gina, is a single mother of two children and has been impacted by this disorder for a good portion of her life.

Bipolar Disorder, also known as Manic Disorder, affects the normal functioning of the brain. The illness causes the individual to experiences extreme moods — very high and over-excited or very low and depressed. The person may be affected so much that he or she experiences the symptoms of psychosis, and is unable to distinguish what is real.

People with Bipolar Disorder experience a range of moods depending on what's happening in their lives. When good things happen, like getting a new job, going on a holiday or falling in love, it's natural to feel happy. On the other hand, when there are difficulties like losing a job or a loved one, having money or family problems, it can make a person feel down. However, people with Bipolar Disorder experience extreme moods that can change regularly and may not relate to what is happening in their lives, although their mood swings may be triggered by certain events. They can become high, over-excited and reckless, or imagine that they are more important or influential than they are in real life. They can also become extremely low, feeling helpless and depressed, with difficulty making decisions or concentrating. Some people mainly experience highs. Some experience mainly lows, and some experience both extremes — becoming profoundly depressed or over-excited. The person may then behave in an uncharacteristically irrational or risky manner.

My mother describes her experience with Bipolar disorder as follows:

When were you diagnosed and how did you feel about it?

I was officially diagnosed with depression at 30 years old after a failed suicide attempt. My psychiatrist first openly told me that I had Bipolar about five years ago after a deep depressive mood cycle. However I think I was diagnosed about seven years ago because about three years before this time I was put on lithium. I think I was being naive about it, or maybe I just didn’t want to face it, even though I knew that lithium was a bipolar medication. 

Being diagnosed with depression was a relief as I had spent so many years suffering through the turmoil of depression and there was a lot of guilt associated with not being able to cope or understand what was going on with me. I had constant thoughts running through my head “You’re crazy, you’re an alien.. Foreign to everyone… you’re a looney”, but I just wanted to be by myself. There was an initial shock of having mental illness but I knew there was something wrong, whereas the diagnosis of Bipolar was more of a shock than the depression. It was kind of weird because I’d gone through all this therapy and understood the mood swings, but never really let myself believe they existed. I think the shock came more from having experienced hospitalisation twice and living with people who had Bipolar and were going through ECT and I felt, “oh **** I’m like them?” Having those thoughts was hard in itself cause I felt like such a hypocrite. I was making the same judgments and reactions that you (mentally ill person) get from ‘everyone.’ All I could think of was, “am I that crazy? I’m not that bad... Am I?” These feelings only lasted a short period of time, until I understood the disorder. Soon came clarity in understanding my behaviour like, “that time was my high.” Now I feel okay about it. Things make more sense to me now. After a lot of reading and letting the dust settle, I understood myself just that little bit better putting things into more of a perspective. Along with depths of low I had experienced, what scared me the most was that I had to wait for these extreme highs, however, my highs are not as extreme and very few and far between. My lows, however, are three times lower than most others who experience more highs and are three times longer. At this point in my life though, I’m in a better frame of mind dealing with it.

How would you describe bipolar disorder?

It is a mood disorder where the polarities of sad and happy times, mania or depression, switch. Somewhere along this line you need help to keep the extremes getting too out of whack, so as to not go into a depressive state or to go into a manic state. Mania could be anything from going on shopping sprees when on a normal day you would know that you don’t have that money to spend, to risky sexual behavior, for example, seeking a one-night stand when that’s really out of character behavior. In essence, it’s making irrational judgments and behaviors. Both extreme ends are irrational, so its like living in a self where everything feels like no hope, negativity and total closure, to everything is great, its alright, spur of the moment thinking. Even while its happening I often think ‘wow did I just do that? Did I get away with that?” Everyone is very different though and how these highs and lows are experienced isn’t the same for all.

How would you describe your mood swings?

For me, depression is when not only I cannot face human interaction, which is usually the first sign for me, it’s a feeling of not being able to cope with the day to day and the these overwhelming voices in my head that eat away at every part of my being. They make me feel insecure around people, make me feel like I can’t cope with anything till I just hide away in my bed. Whereas my manic states are totally opposite, feeling like I want be so socialable, always the instigator of a joke. It’s this feeling that words and the thoughts run faster than I can get them out of my mouth. Usually this extreme leads to things like overspending and having no regard for money. Being in my position having two kids to raise and not really having much money and not being able to stop myself has real consequences and is really put of character for me to have such disregard. On a social level, I find myself becoming overtly flirtatious but afterwards I’m laughing at myself but questioning at the same time, “did you really do that Gina?” It’s almost like I’m boasting about it to myself! Once these feelings start to subside there is always a crash to reality and the sad thing is, I miss them when they’re gone. In a way, I envy that part of me that can be so free and confident. The  depressed part of me I don’t envy. Mania doesn’t cause me as much grief and the consequences aren’t as dire to me. At the end of it all, I end up always going back to this person who, at the base of it, is questioning themselves.

So would you say that the mania is alluring?

Yes... and scary!! Because for as much as it is alluring, there is always that little fear that I could just cross that line just a little bit more and I could be in trouble. Like with money, for example, or get myself into a situation with some man and wonder how the hell I got there.

What is the most difficult part of having Bipolar Disorder?

My first instinct is to say ALL of it! It’s not something I’ve really thought about to be honest. I would really have to say that the lows are the difficult part. I mean there is a lot if different things to deal with like facing people’s perceptions and all the pills every day is a drainer. Being a moody person is a drainer. I know that it sucks for other people around me too, but it really sucks for me being one way and then snapping into another. The lows, however, are so low and so long they take something from me every time and I don’t get it back. Coming out of the depression, that usually last at least two-three months, hence why they are hard when I am flat. I kind of call it emotionless, because I’m not sad anymore but I’m not happy either. That space of time seems to get longer every time I come out of an episode.

What has being the driving force to get you through each time?

I suppose even though having it (Bipolar Disorder) is the hardest thing, it’s also the greatest thing to happen in my life. Through the hospitalization, the extremes, the therapy and the reading, I’ve come to really be at peace with who I am and it’s okay as nobody is perfect. On the way to trying to find a way, to find a place to be happy and be a good mother and good person in society, I’ve had to learn new ways of communication. Amazing literature quotations and what some call ‘self-help books’ have all taught me a new way of seeing life. I feel like I’m a better person today having found out I’m bipolar and being bipolar. I have a lot more respect for myself as a bipolar person and that counts more than anything for anyone’s inner peace. Even the way people, who have come into my life, treat me through this journey surprises me. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, “wow, I could never imagine it could be like this”. I want to be a good mother, a good person and contribute to the community. In the past I was ashamed as a mother, once I came out of rock bottom and I realised the effects it had on my children, the understanding that came from being diagnosed has made me exactly that, a better mother and I am at peace with myself. Before my diagnosis, I never had these times of peace and acceptance of self in my life. Whether I was coming out of a depressive cycle or not, it was the same from me. I learnt that it was okay not to beat myself up when coming out of it. The biggest truth to me in my life and through this journey is, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you deal with it that counts”. I know it’s a cliché but I know that’s all I have to do.

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