Frequently hard to diagnose, bipolar disorder tends to be a moving target. While a physician only gets a brief look into the life of the patient, it is often up to family and friends to provide the necessary context that can help lead to a proper diagnosis.
If you or a loved one have been experiencing irrational or erratic behavior, it could be a sign of bipolar disorder. What signs should you be looking for?
Throughout this article, I will be sharing my personal experience and how the symptoms manifested in my life.
Disclaimer: This post contains my experiences. I am not a mental health professional. If you see signs in yourself or a loved that could signify the presence of mental illness, seek professional help immediately.
1. Trouble at Work
Bipolar Disorder tends to wreak havoc on the work environment. Symptoms can lead to low productivity or strained interactions with colleagues. Workmates often spend more time with the individual than anyone else, making them most alert to unusual or troubling behavior.
My experience was the opposite. In the final days leading up to my correct diagnosis, I became a workaholic. It was not uncommon for me to work 80 hours in a week while maintaining a full social life.
The lack of balance was a clue as to how bad things really were.
It is all too easy to call men “grumpy” as they get older. Many of them are. If the irritability comes on suddenly, is uncharacteristic, or last for many days, it could signify something else going on.
Bipolar disorder can rear its ugly head through outbursts and irrational ranting. Left untreated, this growing anger can lead to money or even legal troubles.
Irritability never caused me to have any legal issues. It did strain many relationships.
Friends started to refer to me as Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde because I would be the life of the party one minute, and then some small, unimportant thing would happen and I would fly into a tirade. I would get so angry that there was no calming me down.
Words quickly became weapons, and I hurt many people in the process.
3. Great Mood
On the surface, a great mood should be a good thing. Someone who suddenly experiences several days of extreme joy and high-energy may be signaling something is wrong.
Bipolar disorder patients often describe mania as Superman Syndrome or the feeling that you can do literally anything. The high spirits are typically uncharacteristic and may come with visions of grandeur and impulsivity.
For me, I tended to stay on the manic side. Many of my close friends did not know me well enough at the time I was at my worst. I had moved 900 miles from my family and so had little to no history with anyone. Without that history, many never noticed that anything was amiss.
The sign that should have been a red flag was that I seldom said “no” to anything. I was always ready to go do something fun, even if I had already worked 16 hours that day and had more work to be completed when I got home.
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Turning to the flip side, depression can also be a signal of bipolar disorder. More than the simple blues, depression lasts for days or weeks and can disrupt relationships and social interaction. Depression may come on suddenly and then disappear just as suddenly only to return later.
My depressed days were dark and foreboding.
I once described it to a friend as walking across a frozen lake at night. Suddenly you fall through the ice. In the darkness, there doesn’t seem to be a way out. The weight of depression pulled me down. When I cycled that way, I would spend days in bed and away from people. I would even park my car at a nearby store and walk home so no one would know I was there.
5. Difficulty Completing Tasks
Mania can bring on a sort of attention deficit disorder. Ideas come so quickly that it becomes hard to complete one task before you have a great idea for the next one. Lots of projects may be started.
When depression takes over, all motivation slips out the window. In an instant, everything becomes impossible and unworthwhile. Little matters as the defeatist attitude takes over.
Someone I know well with bipolar disorder would often take on mountain-like tasks in her mania. One day, completely out of the blue, she took a hammer to her living room wall. She decided she no longer wanted the wall there, so it would have to go.
I like writing, so I have started many novels and stories in the manic state. Sadly, none of them are finished.
6. Unpredictable Behavior
It is hard to see this as a sign in others unless the behavior is extremely unusual. But you may recognize it in yourself.
One of my friends once bought three cars in the course of a week. He didn’t have the money to even pay for the first one.
Bipolar disorder may express itself through unusual or impulse purchases. Or it may manifest through improper actions or risk-taking. If you have a sudden desire to go hitchhiking or skydiving or to go home with random strangers, likely something is wrong.
Personally, I amassed thousands of dollars of debt from unnecessary purchases. Generosity becomes extreme for me and suddenly I want to pay for every meal and buy expensive gifts.
7. Rapid Speech
This is one that you will know when you see it. Rapid speech doesn’t refer to that like a teenage girl when she is excited to tell you about some boy or outfit she wants to buy. This rapid speech is so fast that it may be hard to follow and often will have many, many topic changes. Subjects may change midsentence and you might get the sense that the person could not stop talking if they wanted to.
One of my friends told me I got “crazy eyes” when I got this way. I was never sure what she meant until years later when I was properly medicated and saw this behavior in someone else.
If you ever see “crazy eyes,” it is impossible to mistake.
8. Racing Thoughts
Hand-in-hand with rapid speech can be an intense flight of ideas. This is a more internal symptom that one must recognize in themselves. In children, it may be more obvious as they struggle to get out words coherently because of the rapidly changing thoughts they are experiencing.
For me, it’s usually like being at a party, except at a party you tend to only focus on the conversation that you are contributing to. In my head, I start hearing and comprehending what everyone at the party is saying, and everything seems like a good idea. The speed of the thoughts is usually so high that I cannot write or talk fast enough to keep up.
9. Sleep Issues
Problems with sleep can manifest in two different ways, but both tend to be extreme.
On the one side, you may want to sleep all the time. You may feel that no matter how much you sleep, you are still exhausted and need to sleep more.
The flip side is usually no sleep. This is where I often resided. The last two weeks before I was ultimately hospitalized, I did not sleep one minute. If you don’t have bipolar, you will think that is an impossibly inaccurate statement. I wish it was, but it is true, as my friends and family will attest.
The oddity about not sleeping is that after a day or two you no longer feel tired. I didn’t have the need to sit down and rest or sleep. Some strange energy source had inhabited me, and I was not going to need to sleep ever again.
Not sleeping brings its own litany of problems. Psychosis, hallucinations and other difficulties develop quickly.
10. Mental Noise
To use the party analogy again, bipolar may produce an abundance of mental noise. The difference between mental noise and a flight of ideas is that mental noise, at least in my experience, tends to be incoherent. Like being at a loud party, you can hear the voices of lots of people talking but none of them are clear enough to comprehend.
Mental noise can plague you with unrelenting repeated thoughts. Even on my healthiest days, I still will replay entire conversations over and over again in my head. Then I will think about how the conversation should have continued and play the entire conversation again. Then change something else and play again.
For me, I can also experience this with songs. A certain song, and usually only part of the song, will start playing in my head. It then repeats incessantly no matter what I do to try to stop it. Even listening to or singing another song is ineffective.
Many nights’ sleep has been stolen by this type of noise. Fortunately, the right medicine should make you sleep at some point regardless.
When I finally started on one of the meds I take now, my doctor advised me to take it right before bed. I didn’t believe the medication would make me sleep, so I took it before dinner. I ended up passing out with my fork still in my hand.
Usually, sleep is exactly what you need to reset your brain and turn off the conversation loop.
11. Weight Changes
Sudden changes in weight can signal the possibility of bipolar disorder. Mania can lead to no appetite or being too busy to eat. Depression can bring on excessive eating.
When I was hospitalized, I was down to 116 pounds. I am 5-feet, 9-inches tall for some context. During the next three years, while struggling to find the right medication combination, I gained almost 100 pounds. If people noticed, no one was talking about it and what it might mean.
12. Alcohol or Drug Abuse
Frequently referred to as “self-medicating,” turning to drugs or alcohol tends to be a go-to for those with untreated mental illness. With the list of symptoms above, it is no wonder that someone would try to find their own means to fix the problem.
Excessive alcohol or drug use should always be a warning sign. Even if you are not bipolar, they are unhealthy behaviors and should be addressed appropriately.
Though more than one well-meaning friend tried to pin the “addict” title to me, I was fortunate enough to never develop an addiction. That is not to say that I did not abuse alcohol from time to time. It never became a need for me and was always something I could take or leave.
It’s important for me to reiterate here that I am not a mental health professional. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, please take the time to talk with someone qualified to evaluate your situation as soon as possible.
The Bipolar Disorder diagnosis does not have to spell gloom and doom. You can continue to live a productive and happy life. The key is getting the right help and the right medication.
I was hospitalized in 1995. Though I have had a few very rough patches, I have never had to be hospitalized again. With the exception of only a few months, I have been an active and productive member of society during all the years since.
There is hope. The symptoms listed above do not have to control your life. Take the right step and get help today.
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