From the outside looking in, bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is shrouded in myths, and it's often misunderstood by those who don't have it. Most of us understand that
bipolar disorder involves mood changes, depression, and mania, but there's so much more to living with it than that. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports an estimated 4.4 percent of people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetime, making it more common than most people probably think.
What's more, there are different types of bipolar disorder — four, to be exact. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (
NAMI), Bipolar I is probably the most widely known kind, because it involves both prominent episodes of mania and depression. People diagnosed with bipolar II, on the other hand, experience depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes — which are similar to manic episodes, but not quite as severe or euphoric-feeling. Bipolar Disorder, “other specified” and “unspecified," and cyclothymia are also considered different forms of this mental health issue.
When it comes to bipolar disorder, it's important to remember that those of us who are diagnosed with this mental health issue are not a monolith: There is a
wide range of symptoms, and people experiencing manic, hypomanic, or depressive episodes may not look or act exactly the same. Bustle spoke with 12 people who live with have disorder about what they wish others understood about their mental illness, and about the common misconceptions they hear on a daily basis.
"The thing I’d like people to understand about bipolar, and really mental illnesses in general, is that nobody’s symptoms manifest exactly the same," explains Jordan, a sex worker. "My mania is nothing like Jennifer Lawrence’s in
. It makes it so hard when people start with a stereotype. Not only do I feel it necessary to do the emotional labor of educating them, but then I question my own experience, and validity of my mental illness." Silver Lining's Playbook
Heidi, a mental health advocate, explains that as someone with bipolar disorder, she constantly has to deal with stigma and misconceptions surrounding her mental health. "People always assume that mania is always fun, and that hypersexuality [a symptom of bipolar disorder] is cool, and benefits them," she explains, adding that she has had "dates who insist bipolar is fine as long as I 'don't go psycho' or 'slash their tires.''
"They have no idea that this is offensive," she says.
"I wish people would understand that being bipolar isn't just made up of 'mood swings;' it's more like long periods of a specific main mood, and energy level. But, you can have different emotions during those moods too," says Jovian, a college student.
He adds that he finds people who don't have bipolar disorder often struggle to understand that symptoms of a manic episode can look different for everyone. "Mania isn't just 'elation.' For many, it's ridiculous energy, irritation, loss of touch with reality, increased dissociation, lack of forward thinking, and so on," he says. "Many people buy outside their means. I actually hallucinate often.
It's a part of my bipolar."
"What I have learned from living with this diagnosis for 10 years now is that one of the hardest parts about it is not just the symptoms itself, but the way people view you so negativity, and judge you based on that label so harshly," Rachel, a student and songwriter, tells Bustle.
"I think people should understand that people who [live with] bipolar are not always in some sort of altered mental state," says Jason, an adult and teen services librarian. "With medication and therapy, many people with bipolar disorder are just fine, and contribute to society in all kinds of ways."
Anna, a sex and intimacy coach, explains that she finds people often think bipolar simply means she's either "happy" or "sad." She explains that, "The way I experience mania, or an upswing may be vastly different than the way someone else does. There are also different types of bipolar disorder, which isn't yet common knowledge. The way bipolar disorder manifests in each person is going to be unique and nuanced."
"Because I have been privileged enough to be able to get the mental health care I needed, I can healthfully channel the energy of my upswings into things like cleaning or finishing projects," she says, adding that she "can focus on self-care and getting the support I need when I'm in a downswing. Most people in my life have no idea I even have bipolar disorder unless I tell them."
"My mental illnesses have always been discounted as 'oh when I was your age I struggled, too,' or 'it’s just a bad day.' But, it’s not a bad day, it’s not my age, it’s not an event that happened last week — it’s not anything besides a mental illness, which shouldn’t have a nasty connotation," says Paige, a hotel manager. "I’m not crazy, and I’m not 'psychotic.' [...] It’s okay to fight a battle, but it’s not okay for anyone to try to belittle what I’m going through as simple life stages that 'everyone goes through.'"
"I want to be uplifted, and I don’t want to hear that what I’m struggling with doesn’t matter because someone has it worse," she explains.
"The first thing I want people to know and understand is that bipolar disorder doesn't have to include noticeable mood swings," says Ryan. "Those of us with bipolar are not always 'freaking out.'"
Katie, a stripper, tells Bustle that, "Probably one of the top things people falsely believe about bipolar disorder is that the mania isn’t nearly as bad as the depression. Yes, the depression is dark, nasty, and deep, but I can sleep if I need to — I can rest so I don’t push myself. With the mania, I have absolutely no control. I can’t stop moving, I become hypersexual, and I feel like I’m moving a million miles a minute. For me, that’s almost harder than the depression."
"Living with bipolar disorder is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Unfortunately you begin to get used to the ups and downs, but that doesn’t mean that other people do," says Audrey, an interior design student. "One of the things that I struggle with most commonly is my inability to leave the house. I often make plans with people with great excitement but then when the day comes, I find it physically impossible to get out of bed."
"My friends struggle with my 'flakiness,' when in reality, it’s my disorder and I mean nothing harmful," she explains. "I wish people could understand that it’s not because I don’t want to hang out, it’s simply that I’m unable to leave my bed."
""I never asked to [have] bipolar. So, please stop demonizing people with bipolar," says Jesse, a freelance writer and mental health advocate. Living with bipolar disorder "doesn't mean I'm a bad person, and it doesn't mean I can't function on my own."
"I think what bothers me most is that if I’m ever angry or upset or just having a bad day, people always blame it on my mental illness. If I get angry, the first thing someone says is 'did you take your meds today?' explains Blue, a college student. "My anger or sadness is never deemed legitimate. Yes, I am bipolar, and it does affect how I think and act. But I’m also medicated, stable, and entirely capable of normal, healthy, valid emotional reactions."
In the end, bipolar disorder in no different than other chronic illness that requires appropriate health care, management by mental health professionals, and awareness of lifestyle changes. Mania isn't just having extra energy, and depressive episodes associated with bipolar are just as debilitating as depression in any other mental illness. Demystifying and breaking down the misconceptions that surround bipolar disorder is essential to helping ensure more people can (and will!) seek mental health treatment when they need it.