High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder and the Doubt You Must Overcome
The three sources of doubt I fight every day.
Some might call high-functioning bipolar a gift.
Not a real, I’m-so-happy-I-got-this type of gift, but a gift in the sense that it allows you to still live a full life.
In some ways, I feel lucky for having high-functioning bipolar. If you have to have a mental illness, having one where you can function and live a semi-normal life is a good thing. But on the flip side, there are some additional struggles that come with it.
What Is High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder?
According to Psych Central, “If you have high-functioning bipolar disorder (HFBD), you might be able to manage your bipolar disorder symptoms and complete your daily responsibilities and functions. You might do this so well that it doesn’t seem as if you have the condition at all.”
Does this mean you don’t have symptoms or they are less severe? Not at all. Instead, you’re just really talented at hiding it.
For me, having HFBD means that I’ve been able to hold down a full-time job for most of the last 20 years, take care of my aging parents, and serve as an active volunteer in my community. It also means I’ve managed to maintain a blog since 2018, write on Medium since 2019, have a newsletter on Substack, and consistently produce content for NewsBreak and Vocal.
This may sound wonderful, but I also believe high-functioning bipolar is a dangerous mask we wear.
HFBD is a smile you paint on when you feel dead inside, and the laughter that comes from your belly that rings in your ears like someone else’s voice. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
Here are three ways HFBD makes life even more challenging.Download Your Copy
Doctors Don’t Believe You
I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May 1995.
My diagnosis followed a year of being treated by my primary care doctor for chronic depression. She was the type of doctor who hated working with patients, so she kept throwing higher and higher doses of antidepressants at me even though they weren’t doing any good. I was part of the Prozac nation, and the white and green pills were only intensifying my undiagnosed bipolar symptoms.
The result was an interrupted suicide attempt and a 10-day hospital stay .
Receiving a bipolar disorder diagnosis should be a good thing. You finally have a name to describe all the crazy things going on in your head.
If only life were that simple.
When you’re living with high-functioning bipolar, every time you meet a new doctor you have to convince them you really have a mental disorder. More than once, I’ve had to fight with a doctor to get them to understand just how much chaos lived inside my head. It’s hard to get the help you need when the person who’s supposed to be helping you doesn’t believe you’re sick.
No One Else Does It
“I don’t have any other bipolar patients who work full time like you do,” one doctor told me.
I’d been seeing her for over a year at that point, and her statement made me sad for her other patients.
I’m nobody special, so if I can work full time, there’s no reason that others couldn’t do it, too. Was she not telling people what was possible? The idea kept me awake at night.
For several years, I saw mental health professionals in a local community mental health clinic. It was a low-income option, and all I could afford during the years I didn’t have health insurance.
The trouble with these community mental health clinics was doctors rarely stuck around. Often, I would only see a doctor once or twice before they left. Then I had to start my story over from the beginning and convince a new person of the reality of my bipolar disorder.
It’s why I finally left the clinic and found a better primary care doctor who was willing to work with me and had a successful history of treating mental health conditions.
But it’s not just doctors who don’t believe you.
Friends Don’t Believe You
When I tell a new friend that I have bipolar disorder, they almost always respond with the same words:
“No, you don’t.”
They may laugh nervously and look away, not knowing how to further respond.
Stigma and negative media have led many to believe that bipolar disorder is the insanity we see with some celebrities, the acts of mass violence, or the woman screaming incoherently while taking off her clothes in the middle of the mall.
None of those things are me.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when the bipolar monster has raged inside me. During periods of psychosis, I hallucinated and picked dancing flowers off the wall and lived in fear of a non-existent man who stood at the foot of my bed every night. One time, I stood in the parking lot of my mental health clinic and ripped a no-suicide contract into tiny pieces, only to toss them into the air while laughing like Daffy Duck.
Yes, I have no doubt about my bipolar disorder diagnosis, but my friends who have never seen that part of me often struggle to comprehend it.
If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to never judge a book by its cover. There are often no visible signs of a mental illness. If someone tells you they have one, trust that they’re telling you the truth and try to understand their reality.
Besides doctors and friends, there’s one more person who may not believe you, and this may be the hardest one to accept.
You Don’t Believe You
Like you, I see the stories on the news of people with bipolar disorder acting in unhealthy ways.
I think specifically of one celebrity who is making bipolar infamous by his refusal to stick with proper treatment. Every time I see his name in a headline, I think to myself, “I can’t possibly have bipolar disorder. I’m nothing like him.”
I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder.
I’ve been living with HFBD for 50 years, though I only learned what it really was about 30 years ago. If I don’t stick to my treatment routines and take my medication every day, I’d transform into someone neither my friends nor I would recognize.
There’s no doubt about that, but there are still days I struggled to believe I have a mental illness.
Isn’t this how everyone feels? Are these pills really doing anything? Would anything change if I stop taking them?
The questions are there every day. I know the truth, but it doesn’t make the doubt any quieter in my mind.
Do the Best With What You Have
High-functioning bipolar disorder is a serious mental health concern.
Mental illness rarely has a face, so don’t imagine that you know what someone is going through just because you see how they live their life. What’s in my head is entirely different from the image I display for the world to see. While I’m able to maintain an active life despite HFBD, I still suffer from it every day.
The key is to keep fighting no matter what.
The tiny acts, such as taking your meds and getting enough rest, all add up to improved stability. Watch your warning signs and listen to those who love you. If people point out dangerous trends, pay attention and take action. You can live a full life with mental illness, but it takes hard work every day.
Living with a high-functioning mental disorder offers its own unique challenges, but you can meet them head on and live a successful life. If I can do it, anyone can. So, whether you believe it yourself or not, take the steps to keep yourself stable. Then do your best to stay in the fight.
Until next time, keep fighting.
I guess I have high functioning BPD. I am Bipolar 1 so maybe not that high functioning. Some blessings but lots of symptoms. Thank you for writing about this. I wrote a book about my getting help and healing as much as I am going to heal. If you’re interested, it is 3 dollars on Amazon. We have to help each other.
Congrats on writing a book! I’m working on putting together my first one. What’s the title?