When I was fifteen, I suffered my first depression. My creative writing teacher sent me to the guidance office because he was concerned about the content of my writing. I was relieved to see the counselor, and told her my feelings and the fact that my brother had just been arrested for heroin possession and I was afraid he was going to die.
I went home that day and told my mother that I had been sent to the guidance office. She flew into a rage and screamed something about never talking about our family to anyone. It was the first chance I had of getting help for what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. And because of my mother’s reaction, it would be fifteen years and take a nervous breakdown and hospitalization before I actually got the help I needed.
Bipolar disorder is marked by periods of clinical depression which “swing” to periods of mania or expansive and high mood. In between there can be periods of normal mood and activity.
Depression is marked by hopelessness, suicidal ideation or attempts, and excessive dark thoughts and excessive sleeping or the inability to sleep. It is difficult to take care of oneself, and one often lacks the interest in doing so.
Mania is marked by elevated moods or a period of “highs” which may include pressured speech, irritablity, excessive physical activity, risk-taking activity, promiscuity, spending sprees and high creativity. In severe cases, there can be psychotic episodes.
23.3 million people in the United States, and 60 million people worldwide have this chronic mental illness. It may have familial roots, and affects the chemistry of the brain.
The treatment is often a combination of supportive therapy and pharmaceuticals. Some patients stop treatment thinking that the illness is “gone,” but it is chronic and incurable.
Now that I look back, I suspect that my mother may have suffered from manias, being excessively active and creative and also bursting into unprovoked and unpredictable rages.
But I don’t suffer from that. I am what you would call a highly controlled person with bipolar disorder. I have my mood swings, sometimes extreme, but I also cycle quickly into and out of the swings and am able to remind myself that this, too, shall pass.
People with bipolar disorder do suffer greatly, but for those whose creativity and productivity is boundless during the “highs,” it can also be felt to be a blessing if it contributes to their art.
Bipolar disorder can contribute to high success in business, comedy, acting, music, writing, and art. Many famous people have and have had the disorder and gone on to success in their chosen field. They are exciting people to be around, with infectious humor and flights of ideas.
If you suspect that a young teen or twenty-something is suffering from bipolar disorder, offer support without judgement, and the opportunity to get professional help. Many suffer needless years because of the stigma of mental illness preventing them from seeking help.
Do you know someone with a chronic mental illness? Have you been reticent to talk about it with them?