Living with Bipolar Disorder Author: Tanner Meyer, LMSW, Counselor
I kid you not I had a lightbulb idea for a blog to write, and as I quickly ran to turn on my laptop, in the minute or so between lightbulb and power button, I completely forgot what I was going to write about. And I swear, it was going to be good, you just have to trust me… Unfortunately, due to some medications I take, I lose my memory really easily.
Sometimes, bipolar disorder is funny like that, like in a light chuckle kind of way. I laugh at myself because I need to find the humor in something that has made my life very difficult.
I had a stress dream recently; the stress kind that when you wake up you are short of breath and your heart is racing and you’re perspiring a little…And its not quite a nightmare because it’s rather realistic, something that could absolutely happen, but that’s probably what makes it so stressful….
The dream? I had a manic episode and got a face tattoo (a heart on my right temple) and I could no longer be a therapist. I woke up absolutely alarmed; what if I actually did that one day?
After texting my partner about this dream, someone who also decorates their body with ink, he gently reminded me that most tattoo shops would never tattoo the face of someone without their entire body covered, and even then it is more rare. This allowed me to exhale. Phew… And then I exhaled a soft “ha” at my silly dream.
That “ha” felt complex. I could recognize with my wise mind that this was only a dream, a projection of a subconscious anxious thought, and that made it feel a little silly. But the other part of my brain, the emotional mind, told me that this dream was not entirely impossible; I could one day have a manic episode that could ruin my career, or my relationships, and that terrified me.
In grad school I had a lecture on bipolar disorder from a woman who works with people with the disorder. I listened thoughtfully, but also carefully. Don’t make a face, don’t offer insight, don’t ask questions, they may find out you’re one of them. I carried a deep fear that if my bipolar-ness came out, I could never be a social worker.
This lecture did paint a nice visual for me to understand the intensity and fluctuation in mood. The lecturer asked us to picture the globe. If the equator is “stability”, then the average person without a mood disorder oscillates between a +2 when they are joyful and a -2 when they are sad (see image). But a person with bipolar disorder leaps to a +5 at the North Pole when they are in mania, and a -5 in Antarctica when they are depressed, and they can do this very quickly with seemingly few triggers. Triggers include, but are not limited to, changes in weather, temperature, sleep, stress at work, jet lag, too much sunlight, not enough sunlight, menstrual cycle, conflict with loved ones, missing a dose of medication, or sometimes without an identifiable trigger at all.
What does this look like, exactly? Well, it can be different for each person, and each type of bipolar disorder. What’s important to note: a manic episode can make a person act outside of their values when they are stable. For instance, they may spend thousands of dollars that they don’t have, they may have an affair, they may put themselves in incredibly dangerous situations, they may steal, they may abuse dangerous and addictive substances, they may run into the street and play chicken with cars because they think that they have superpowers and cannot die if they were hit by a car (oddly specific but not uncommon). Again, I cannot stress enough, the person acts outside of their values; they can act completely out of character with little realization they are doing so. This is important to keep in mind if you are the loved one of someone with bipolar disorder. Your loved one may feel unrecognizable when they are in either polar state- mania or depression- and they can leave a trail of pain and heartache wherever they go during these times.