Common misconceptions about bipolar disorder and how to fight them.
Trigger warning: Self-harm, suicidal ideation
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I only had a vague idea of what the diagnosis meant.
I knew of a young man who went and bought several cars from different dealerships over the course of one week. He disappeared for days at a time and had violent outbursts. Though it was always told in whispers, he had bipolar disorder.
The little I knew of him made it impossible for me to think I had bipolar disorder. The few instances of bipolar I saw in movies and television further blurred the lines. If that was bipolar, then it was certainly not what I had.
That wasn’t the only misconceptions about bipolar disorder I had. I had many misconceptions about mental illness. Here are a few things I wish I knew when I was first diagnosed.
Mental illness is not weakness
It’s a sad reality that many still believe mental illness equates to weakness. There is no truth in that statement. It’s a common misconception about bipolar disorder. Whether you are healthy mentally has nothing to do with your strength.
When the voices in my head got to be too loud, and the thoughts ran was such intensity that I couldn’t even follow them anymore, I knew it was time for me to tell someone what was going on. But I also knew it meant acknowledging that I needed help.
I was a strong and independent young man. One of my foundational beliefs growing up was to trust no one. That’s a long story for another post, but suffice it to say it was important to me not to show weakness.
I’d love to say I overcame this misbelief quickly. Truth be told, now three decades later, there are still times I struggle with the belief. Every time I have to cancel social plans because of anxiety, there’s a voice that condemns me for being weak.
I know that voice is wrong. It’s just one of the false voices that sings in the negative chorus in my head. But the thought is still there and was especially loud in the beginning.
Medication is not magic
The little I knew about mental illness wasn’t even enough to fill the words on this page. While there were people in my life coping with mental illness, and even bipolar disorder, as I would learn years later, no one was talking about it.
There was a part of me that understood mental illness was just that – an illness.
Everyone who talked about the young man mentioned above said that if he would just stay on his medication, he would be just fine. To me, those words meant medication was magic. Take a little pill, and everything will be okay. Blue pill or red pill didn’t matter. Just take one, and everything would be different. It was another of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder that was keeping me stuck.
Here’s the truth. There is no pill that is going to make everything rainbows and butterflies. Well, at least no pill you should take for your mental health. And I’m not advocating taking any other type of pills. Sorry, Morpheus.
It took me years and over 30 different medications before I found the right combination that allowed me to feel some feelings and still be a functioning member of society.
Part of the problem was I believed medication would make everything wonderful. I was taking meds, so I wouldn’t feel sad, angry or disappointed. Medication would keep me from feeling despondent or unable to face the world. Anxiety was going to be a word I would never think of again.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!
Medication is not magic. It’s simply a tool in your mental health toolbox.
No matter how wonderful the drugs, there are still going to be days when you’re sad. There will be days when it’s impossible to take a shower. Anxiety will keep you home sometimes.
As of today, there is no pill that can cure mental illness. Some of those negative feelings are just normal feelings. We were meant to feel sad, angry and disappointed. No emotions would be worse than too many. Trust me, I took some medications that made me completely numb, and there’s no quality in that life.
Still, in the beginning, I believed medication was magic. When those first little green and white pills didn’t fix everything, I thought I was beyond help. That false belief made the next few years much harder than they needed to be.
Medication is long term
For some of you reading this, you may live a full life without medication. I applaud you. There are different types of bipolar disorder, and among those types, there are varying intensities and severities.
For me, medication is a necessity. I’ve never reached a point where where I no longer needed it. The idea that you can take meds for a short while and be cured is another of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder.
To this day, if I go a few days without taking my pills, I either sink to an extremely dark and foreboding place, or ascend to such heights that I believe I can fly and take over the world.
Medication is a part of my life. As much as I hate taking those stupid pills, they are here to stay. That’s okay. As much as I don’t like those little helpers, they allow me to live a mostly sane life.
Bipolar doesn’t make you dangerous
Much of today’s media broadcast the message that mental illness makes you violent and dangerous. That’s not true and a harmful misconception about bipolar disorder. In fact, people with a mental illness are generally much less likely to commit a violent act than anyone in the general population.
Of course, that doesn’t mean people with bipolar aren’t a danger to themselves.
I don’t remember when self-harm started, but I know when it was most intense. It was a time when I was dealing with unimaginable grief and didn’t feel like there was anyone I could talk to. Everyone I knew was suffering, and so it was up to me to handle my problems alone.
Note: I could have and should have spoken to my doctor, but I had recently switched providers and didn’t feel comfortable telling my current doctor how I felt or what I was doing.
Self-harm became an unhealthy way for me to cope and feel something. It was the wrong way, but the misconceptions I had about bipolar made it seem like the right thing.
It doesn’t have to be. Bipolar is neither a condemnation nor a license to a life of violence. You don’t have to be a danger to anyone, including yourself.
It took me years to overcome my unhealthy habits. It’s now been many years since I stopped. My self-harm journey should have been shorter, but no one told me better.
Bipolar isn’t always progressive
Another misconception about bipolar disorder is that it only gets worse with time. Typically, that’s not the case.
I know of two women whose bipolar has progressively worsened with time. As their friend, it’s been a painful journey to watch. However, with at least one of them, a big part of the problem was inconsistencies in taking her medication.
She would start her medication and reach a level point and then believe she no longer needed them. In her mind, she was “better” and stopped treating her bipolar. She refused to start again until she reached rock bottom. Often, it was only after she was confined to a hospital that she would begin recovery.
I’m nearing the half-century mark, and I know dozens of people with bipolar. A few are open about it, but most won’t talk about it.
One thing seems consistent. Those who properly treat their condition tend to have less severe cycles as they get older. The highs and lows lose some of their intensity. Either that or the patient learns better ways to deal with it.
In my case, the worst of my bipolar symptoms have improved with time. It’s not gone, but it’s a beast I’ve learned how to live with.
I’m going to add a caveat here. While the bipolar in general, at least the extreme highs and devastating lows, have improved, my anxiety has gotten worse. A year spent at home has made social anxiety an animal that will make it challenging to spend time with friends again.
I also have generalized anxiety disorder, and it seems to be progressive. The older I get, the harder it is to be around people, to drive, and to not to worry about every little thing.
Maybe bipolar causes the anxiety. I’m not a medical professional and can’t say for sure. I like to think of anxiety as a separate entity. If so, that means that the bipolar itself has gotten better.
It won’t always be this way
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I feared my life then was how it would always be. In those worst moments, when all I wanted to do was stop the noise in my head, I couldn’t imagine any other type of life. It didn’t seem possible that I would ever have a genuine relationship or be able to trust my emotions. It was another of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder.
Again, I was very wrong. Just as bipolar disorder is known for its highs and lows, bipolar itself also changes with time.
Just because today seems impossible doesn’t mean tomorrow will feel the same. Things change, and for me, the biggest changes came after I found the right medication combination and started talk therapy.
Learning to take apart the things I was feeling, even the irrational feelings brought on by bipolar disorder, made it possible for me to face everything else. Things didn’t stay in that dreadful place, and I’m grateful I didn’t end things then.
A bipolar disorder diagnosis is not the end. It’s crushing and devastating, but survivable.
If someone recently diagnosed you, don’t let despair overtake you. Don’t believe the misconceptions about bipolar disorder you’ve been told. Never succumb to the darkness.
It’s a serious disorder to live with, but what’s not difficult in today’s world? Mental illness is an illness. Some days will feel like an impossible struggle, but better days will also come.
As much as I hate it, bipolar disorder has created positive things in my life. I sense emotions easily in others, and I feel emotions stronger than many people. I believe at least part of my creative mind comes from bipolar-induced overactivity in my brain.
There are likely still things I believe about bipolar disorder that are wrong, but the list above is what I wish I knew in the beginning. It would have saved me a lot of time and anxiety.
If you are just starting on your bipolar journey, be open to everything. There is help available. There is light ahead.
Until next time… Keep fighting.