There are many assumptions that people make about bipolar disorder that are false. The number one I’ve encountered is that bipolar is just mood swings and either being happy or sad, yet it is so much more than that. Hearing people jokingly say, “I’m so bipolar!” sets my teeth on edge. It is in fact a complex, long term condition with sufferers all having different periods of depression, hypomania, mania and stability. Mania for me is reckless, dangerous driving. It's spending masses of money I don't have. It's an irrational, intense anger toward everything and everyone. It's believing I can rule the world, and anything is possible. Paranoia follows me everywhere, whispering in my ear. It's hearing voices that boost my self belief.
This all very suddenly turns into depression and I’m left feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. I begin to fixate and obsess on all the outlandish and embarrassing things I did when I was manic and hate myself for it. The depression will become so severe I will become suicidal and make plans to end my life. Bipolar mania and depression can sometimes be accompanied by psychosis. When I’m very depressed I will hear voices, that are malicious and hurtful. Many people, including myself, with bipolar also suffer from anxiety, problems with addiction and eating disorders.
People think mania is fun - it isn't
Another assumption is that mania, “Must be so fun!” It’s far from it. Hypomania is the lesser extreme of mania. Your self confidence is unbound, you feel constantly restless and itching to start that new project you've been dreaming about. A good mood and hypomania can present as extremely similar to an outsider and even feel the same to myself. I have been in a hypomanic state when family and friends believed I was just happy. What they didn't see was that I was constantly 'on', like a light with a faulty switch that can never be turned off until you fix the problem. It's a dangerous time, as relentless energy pushes me on further to do more and more. I can't sleep or eat because my mind is desperately active; it needs to be satiated with action and excitement.
If this isn't addressed and treated, hypomania can easily turn and I find myself in the throes of mania. Mania doesn't always feel good. You're not always ecstatic and the life of the party. It can be as self destructive and life threatening as depression. It's hypomania but brighter, louder, so much so it's like your senses are overloaded. It can be irritating and unpleasant, like when you're trying to sleep and it's three in the morning, but your body is constantly in an awkward position and you can never seem to get comfortable. I’ve had delusions that I was so important that cars would instantly stop if I walked into the road. I’ll feel like raging and screaming because of the pressure building inside my head, but there's no release valve. It's not anything like feeling ‘good.’
Bipolar is just a small part of me
People assume that if you have bipolar disorder you’re going to be hard work or difficult to be around. This causes many sufferers to feel isolated and alone. It’s caused me to answer “I’m fine” when I’ve felt desolate inside and so as not to cause a fuss. I used to worry about people finding out and thinking I was mad, or fear that they may never understand. I’ve not disclosed at interview or when I’ve started a job, out of worry that they would find some other excuse not to employ me. I’ve lied to past employers about why I’ve been off sick. It shouldn’t be this way and often makes a difficult episode of depression or mania even more severe, because of the stress all the stigma creates.
Bipolar disorder is just one small aspect of who I am. It doesn’t mean I’m flawed or broken or difficult. It has made me a more caring and empathetic person, but it doesn’t define me. When a friend or family member speaks out about having bipolar disorder, they need to be treated as they were before they said anything. Their illness isn't the only topic of conversation you can speak to them about from now on. They are a person with an identity, personality, hopes and dreams, hobbies and passions. They are not just 'the poorly one' or 'the awkward one.' I know it can be difficult for family and friends to acclimatise to the idea of a loved one with a mental illness. It takes time for everyone to adjust, not just the person with the illness.
Learning and educating yourself about someone’s condition can be really helpful. You realise it can be managed and that it doesn't need to consume their life. They are more than their mental illness: try to see past the illness and see the real person behind it.