Bipolar Disorder: What Is It Really?

I’ve mentioned before that I have Bipolar disorder. In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve come across several people that don’t really know what it is or misunderstand it. In this blog, I’m going to try to explain it a little so bear with me as things may get a tad technical/medical.

What is Bipolar, and what are the symptoms?

At a basic level, Bipolar is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings. So this isn’t just feeling either happy or depressed, it’s feeling them to extremes. These moods can last for weeks or months.

What we’re talking about is this;

With the depression side, it’s not just feeling “sad.” You can feel the below sometimes multiple ones combined;

  • feeling sad, hopeless or irritable most of the time
  • lacking energy
  • difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • loss of interest in everyday activities
  • feelings of emptiness or worthlessness
  • feelings of guilt and despair
  • feeling pessimistic about everything
  • self-doubt
  • being delusional, having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking
  • lack of appetite
  • difficulty sleeping
  • suicidal thoughts

On the flip side, being manic isn’t just “happy,” it’s all of the below;

  • feeling very happy, elated or overjoyed
  • talking very quickly
  • feeling full of energy
  • feeling self-important
  • feeling full of great new ideas and having important plans
  • being easily distracted
  • being easily irritated or agitated
  • being delusional, having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking
  • not feeling like sleeping
  • not eating
  • doing things that often have disastrous consequences – such as spending large sums of money on expensive and sometimes unaffordable items
  • making decisions or saying things that are out of character and that others see as being risky or harmful

Sometimes, one side of the Bipolarity is felt more than the other, in my case – and indeed most cases – depressive episodes are experienced more often than manic episodes.

Between these episodes, you may have periods of feeling “normal.” Which is just not high or low, but still far from what other people would call normal.

The patterns for the highs and low can vary from time to time, and person to person. But these patterns can be classified as the below;

  • rapid cycling – where you repeatedly swing from a high to a low phase quickly without having a “normal” period in between
  • mixed state – where you experience symptoms of depression and mania together; for example, overactivity with a depressed mood

Living with Bipolar

Living with Bipolar can be hard at times sometimes – especially a manic episode – you may not be aware that you’re having an episode. After an episode is over, however, you may realise that you were and may even be shocked by what you did during it. But while you’re in it, you may think that people are just being negative or are against you in some way.

Just because you have a Bipolar diagnosis doesn’t mean that your episodes will be the same as someone else with the disorder, everyone can experience it differently.

The extremes of it may also affect your life in other ways. For example, it might be hard to stay in a job; personal relationships may suffer, and there’s also an increased risk of suicide. During an episode, you may also experience strange things, like hallucinations which can also affect your daily life.

Along with all this fun, you may also have delusions or psychotic episodes thrown in for good measure.

Causes

Bipolar disorder is widely believed to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain.

The chemicals responsible for controlling the brain’s functions are called neurotransmitters and include noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. If one or more of these is imbalanced, then you may experience symptoms of Bipolarity.

For example, there’s evidence that episodes of mania may occur when levels of noradrenaline are too high, and bouts of depression may be the result of noradrenaline levels becoming too low.

It is also thought that Bipolar can be genetic. So if you have family members with it, you’re at an increased of also developing it.

From what I’ve read, there’s isn’t a single gene that causes Bipolar, unlike other genetic disorders, but both genetic and environmental factors can cause it.

A stressful situation or circumstance can often trigger the symptoms of Bipolar disorder.

How is it triggered?

Some examples of stressful triggers include:

  • Relationship breakdown
  • physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • the death of a close family member or loved one

These are life-altering events and could bring about a depressive episode at any time in a person’s life.

Bipolar disorder may also be triggered by:

  • physical illness
  • sleep disturbances
  • overwhelming problems in everyday life, such as problems with money, work or relationships

As far as my Bipolar goes, I’ve spent year’s trying to work out triggers. Sometimes I can pinpoint them down to life events, but others seem just to happen. They also don’t have a regular pattern so I can’t even work out when they might occur and plan for them. The fact that they can happen at any time is also a cause of stress because I find myself worrying about when a depressive episode might hit me

Getting diagnosed can be a struggle. In my case, it was hard to get because I would only contact the doctor when I was in a low mood. When high everything was awesome – much like the Lego movie; just without the singing – so at the beginning I ended up being told I just had depression. It’s only when the moods went up and down regularly that I questioned this and spoke about it.

I’ve done several rounds of CBT, spoken to psychiatrists and doctors and been on more medication than. I can remember before I got to the “stable” place I’m in now. Don’t get me wrong, I still ups and downs, but now they didn’t happen as regularly, and when they do, I can handle them slightly better.

There are, at times, still bouts of depression that floor me. I had one of these at the back end of last year where I felt worse than I’ve felt in a long time. The fact that it was the first really low mood I’d had in a while made it feel so much worse than it was. It was so bad that I didn’t want to be here anymore, and if I didn’t have the love and support of those around me – especially Alex – then I might not be.

Living with Bipolar is hard, but it is not all that I am – even though it might feel like it sometimes.

In future blogs, I’ll talk more about how both the depressive and manic sides have affected me.

One last thing before I sign off. If you’re reading this and you think, “This is me” and you’re struggling day-to-day, just know that there is help out there for you. It sucks asking for help, and I’m someone who finds it really hard to ask for it and say what I need, but without being able to make that first step, God knows where I would be.

As hard as it is to tell my story, I feel like getting it out there may help people realise that they’re not alone because I know that that’s how it feels sometimes.

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