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Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, is a brain disorder that is characterized by extreme shifts in mood, from feeling up and full of more energy than usual (manic episodes) to feeling sad and a lack of energy (depressive episodes).
Mood shifts due to bipolar disorder are not the same as mood shifts a person without bipolar disorder would feel. For instance, if your best friend is running in a race and wins first place, your main reaction most likely be to burst with energy and excitement. But those feelings are temporary. What separates bipolar disorder from what people without mental illness experience is frequency and severity.
For people with bipolar disorder, the extreme shifts in mood affect their daily functioning and often last weeks to months longer than the events that caused them.
Courtesy of TedEd at YouTube.com
The two main symptoms of bipolar disorder are the euphoric highs and depressive lows, and people who have the disorder can experience them differently. Some people tend to have more highs or more lows, and some can experience both at the same time. This is called an episode with mixed feelings, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and people who experience this kind of episode might feel depressed and hopeless while also feeling energized.
Scientists haven’t discovered a single cause of bipolar disorder, but some believe it’s due to…
Genetics: While the chances of developing bipolar disorder are higher if a child’s parent or sibling has it, there’s no concrete proof that genetics is the sole factor. Children who do not have bipolar disorder have been born to parents who do, and according to NAMI, in cases of twins, one might develop it while the other will not.
Brain Structure: Scientists have noticed differences between size and brain activity between people who have bipolar disorder and people who do not. There are also cases that show that damage to the brain’s structure, concussions and severe head trauma can raise the possibility of developing bipolar disorder. It should be noted that brain scans can’t be used to diagnose a person with bipolar disorder.
Stress: Like with major depression, there have been links between bipolar disorder and stressful situations, such as loss of a loved one, and the way a person copes with those situations might play a role in developing bipolar disorder.
Journalist and mental health advocate Portia Booker was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in November 2016 after moving to Oklahoma for a job. With new surroundings, Booker chalked up the way she was feeling to stress, but as we learned in “All About Being S.A.D.,” stress is supposed to be temporary.
Booker’s symptoms didn’t go away, and she found herself feeling agitated and unable to focus. She started therapy and eventually received a diagnosis from a psychiatrist: She has bipolar disorder.
Booker faced some hurdles during these steps in her mental health journey that resulted in her losing a job and friends, but she’s thankful she has a better understanding of bipolar disorder and mental health. She’s now chronicling her journey in her blog “What’s in Portia’s Pocket.”
Bipolar disorder is one of the most difficult illnesses to diagnose. There’s no blood test or body scan that can identify it; it is invisible. And because of this, bipolar disorder can often be misdiagnosed and can lead to further stress and complications.
When diagnosed properly, finding the right treatment can be difficult. There’s no one “cure-all” medication for bipolar disorder, but it is treatable and manageable. Treatment includes medication, such as mood stabilizers, therapy, hospital care and specialists, such as psychiatrists.
For author and mental health advocate Andy Behrman, treatment also included electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), then known as “electroshock therapy.” This decision came as a last resort after having been misdiagnosed by 8 doctors and taken a slew of medications that weren’t working for him.
As Behrman wrote about in his memoir “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” he hid his mental illness under a big personality, switching jobs frequently, taking trips around the world and spending thousands of dollars on shopping sprees in search of new highs. This eventually changed when he found himself in jail, in media and on house arrest after a stint in forging art. He no longer had a means to escape. He sought out treatment, and eventually landed on ECT. The treatment gave him a temporary cure and the moniker “Electroboy.” Read an excerpt from his book here.
MHM: At what point did you realize you might have bipolar disorder? What symptoms were you experiencing?
AB: As I wrote about in “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania,” in which I chronicle my battle with bipolar disorder, I never actually realized that I might have bipolar disorder. I always experienced mania, but I always thought it was part of my personality, but when my mania pushed me to getting involved in risky, dangerous and illegal activities, people around me realized that there was probably a psychiatric problem. I was jumping from job to job as a go go boy, publicist and art dealer (I was indicted for fraud for counterfeiting art work and ended up in prison and then under house arrest).
MHM: How would you describe your highs and lows? How has that changed over time?
AB: I certainly had more highs than lows and my highs were out of control and frightening. Oddly, my rare lows were more about rage and anger and less about depression. So I had very little control of my highs and it felt as though I was walking a tightrope without a net underneath. I was fearless and had no sense of consequences of my choices.
MHM: Did you experience any other mental illness alongside bipolar disorder?
AB: In conjunction with my bipolar disorder, I experienced issues with anxiety and also issues with every type of addiction: drugs, alcohol and sex. I was leading a life that was entirely out of control, although on the outside, it just appeared to others that I was somewhat “wild and crazy” but also extremely productive.
MHM: On your website, you mention that you decided to undergo electroshock therapy, which is known to have side effects such as memory loss. Did you know about those side effects at the time, and how did they affect you after treatment?
AB: I did choose to have ECT, but only after 45 medications failed me. As far as being warned about the side effects, I don’t think I was adequately informed of the memory loss and cognitive impairment I would experience. And since my treatment lasted over a period of about eighteen months (19 treatments), both were issues for me for about two years or so.
MHM: What inspired you to write Electroboy?
AB: I was inspired to write “Electroboy” because I had never read what I believe was an honest account of mental illness (and almost nothing in the memoir genre written by a man). I remember telling myself, “If I write my story, it’s going to be the whole truth. And if it shocks or offends people, so be it.” And I do believe “Electroboy” surprised and even disturbed people, but I make no apologies.
MHM: What advice would you give to someone who has or might have bipolar disorder?
AB: My best advice to somebody who is concerned about possibly living with bipolar disorder is to seek out the opinion of a mental health care professional (usually a psychiatrist who has been highly recommended). But I also believe in second and third opinions, as many psychiatrists can misdiagnose bipolar, which is by far, the hardest mental illness to diagnose. In addition, sharing your concerns about your condition with a family member of friends before seeking professional help can also be helpful in conjunction to finding a self help group in your area.
MHM: There is currently a stigma revolving around mental health, and some people feel afraid to admit or speak openly about their mental health. What advice would you give to people who are struggling in silence?
AB: The word stigma really is a “code word” for discrimination. Curiously, if you had diabetes, you’d have less of a problem seeking help and would take insulin. But if you have bipolar disorder, which is invisible, people may doubt that you really do have a problem and may say things to you like: “Why don’t you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” which is something that has been said to me. If you feel like you are suffering in silence, try to speak to somebody who will just listen. Don’t even worry if they seem to understand. It’s just your time to vent and don’t even think about their reaction. Let it out.
MHM: For people who don’t suffer from mental illness or disorders, what can be done to increase awareness and education?
AB: For people who don’t suffer themselves from mental health issues and don’t know anybody else with an illness like bipolar disorder (which is rare to find these days), it’s critical for us to tell our stories over and over again. And perhaps this is why I wrote “Electroboy” and travel around the country speaking about my experience, which you can learn more about here http://www.electroboy.com
This is just a mere scraping of the surface on bipolar disorder. What else would you like to know?