What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder mainly affects mood. People living with bipolar disorder will tend to experience the following periods of feeling ‘high’ (often referred to as ‘mania’) and periods of feeling low (depressive episodes). These periods can last for several weeks at a time. People may also experience some features of psychosis.
Everyone has variations in their mood, but in bipolar disorder these changes can be extreme, very distressing and have a big impact on a person’s life. Depending on the way the mood changes are experienced, and how they affect a person, a doctor may make a diagnosis of a particular type of bipolar disorder.
Previously, bipolar disorder was referred to as ‘manic depression’, so you might still hear people use this term. Some health care professionals may also use the term bipolar affective disorder (affective means relating to mood or emotions).
What causes bipolar disorder?
The exact cause is not known, however there are certain things that can trigger an episode, especially stressful life events such as bereavement. It is also thought that genetics can play a part.
Real life experience
Bipolar disorder, a condition formerly known as manic depression, affects your mood. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of depression and mania in their life. Episodes can vary in frequency, severity and length but in order to be diagnosed with the condition a person must have experienced at least one episode at either end of the scale.
A depressive episode usually manifests with overwhelming feelings of worthlessness. I remember feeling like I was the biggest burden to my family, that I could not contribute anything to the world and it would have been better had I never been born. A manic episode is quite the opposite; I was full of energy and felt that I didn’t need to sleep. My level of ambition was huge, and completely unrealistic, I felt like I had so much to give to the world; I was unstoppable.
Many people struggle with symptoms of a mental illness for years before they are given a diagnosis and can find that a diagnosis actually comes as a relief and can help them, as well as their friends and families, better understand their experiences.
Personally, I received my diagnosis relatively quickly, within a year of experiencing symptoms. Perhaps as a result of this, I found it particularly hard to deal with; I spent a long time in denial of my bipolar disorder, despite my experiences being a textbook case. Once I was discharged from hospital and feeling well again, I even approached a psychiatrist and asked how I could get the diagnosis removed from my record; I was convinced they had made a mistake.
Three years on, however, I am at peace with my diagnosis. I have done a lot of reading around the condition, the criteria for a diagnosis, the experiences of other people with bipolar disorder and see now that my attempts to deny it were futile. My psychiatrist helped me to see why I should embrace my diagnosis and rather than denying it. She taught me that my diagnosis was not shameful, and that instead of fighting so hard against it, I should be proud of how well I am able to manage my condition, to not let it control my life the way I might have done.
We were realistic; we talked about the stigma of declaring a mental illness, but agreed that the only way that this would ever change is when the world is able to see examples which challenge the stereotypes. The world frequently sees examples of the negatives of the condition, when people are at their most unwell and vulnerable, but rarely do we hear about those people who are living well with the condition every day. I hope, as far as possible, to become an example of the latter.
I understand now that I will always have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I will always have to manage my condition, just because I may have a period of feeling well, does not mean that I am cured. Instead I focus on maintaining my wellbeing and do everything in my power to prevent the condition taking hold of me the way it did in the past. I may have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but my diagnosis will never define me as a person.
If you’d like to share your experience of bipolar disorder, email firstname.lastname@example.org