Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar Affective Disorder
Manic Depression

A lot of different ways for saying the same thing.

All too often, a lot of different ways for misunderstanding the same thing. For labeling it, casting it out, walling ourselves off from it.

Any illness can make us uncomfortable, even when we are not the sufferers. It is a reminder of our mortality; it is a reminder of our helplessness. To see someone else in pain and not be able to help is difficult to bear. It is impossible to bear not knowing how the illness strikes, so that we can protect ourselves from it; note the many charms and rituals for warding off disease that existed long before modern medicine, and the New Age "explanations" of the causes of health and illness that continue to multiply when people don't, quite, trust modern medicine.

Illnesses that strike at the mind and emotions are even more unsettling than purely physical illness. To most of us, our mind is what makes us human, our mind is us. Something that can disorder the roots of our being, take our thought and emotions out of our own control, is sometimes too frightening even to contemplate -- we refuse to think about "mental illness" in any responsible way. To make ourselves feel safer, we characterize the sufferers of "mental illnesses" as people entirely unlike ourselves -- people with some genetic or moral weakness, who have brought this on themselves by bad conscience, or self-centeredness, or karma.

The truth is, "mental health" is a continuum where we are all a lot closer to the muddy end of the stick than to the shiny end, and the border between "normal" and "abnormal" is wide, hazy and often wanders. Mood disorders are uncomfortably common.

Everyone has moods. Everyone's moods vary. "Sometimes I'm up, Sometimes I'm down." Oh, Yes, Lord.

But most people's moods correspond to something going on around or inside of them. You get a wonderful new job, you are whooping and hollering in joy. You get fired, you are depressed. You go with friends to a lake for a picnic; everyone is happy, but you become sad for awhile because the lake reminds you of a place you spent summers with your grandparents, and your grandmother very recently died. These are all reactions to identifiable causes.

In what are called "mood disorders", the affected person's moods no longer correspond to external causes, or to their own direction. One friend of mine with depressive disorder has never in her life felt what you or I would call "happy". She wakes up every morning with the diffused body-ache, lack of energy and zest for life, and mental dullness that you would associate with the first days of a major grief. She can intellectually know that she "wants" to do certain things, that she finds the results "pleasurable", that she loves her family and friends and that they love her in return. She will never in her life feel it.

I am bipolar. When my moods are swinging up, nothing can upset me, nothing can offend me, everything and everyone is intriguing and beautiful and amusing. (If we bipolars only experienced this "hypomania", you would never get any of us to take any medication. If we could bottle it and sell it, we would have all of you addicted and we would own the world.) My own manic phase is mild, but when I do get manic, it is almost impossible not to offend me. Not a single other person on this benighted planet can grasp the simplest single thing! I am surrounded by idiots! How do you all go brain-dead so suddenly? When I am on the down-swing, all my energy goes away. When I am myself, I am a writer and an activist, involved in many causes -- when I am depressed, I can't care enough about any project to do anything about it. When I am really depressed, I can't get out of bed.

For me, Lithium is a life-saver. I am one of the fortunate ones, approximately 30%, who respond well to Lithium and don't have side-effects from it.

Many others who suffer from bipolar disorder do not respond to Lithium. There are many other medications to try, including Depakote. But crucial to effective treatment is a timely diagnosis. Statistics show, not surprisingly, that people who are diagnosed soon after onset respond better to treatment and stabilize their lives more easily.

One of the things I try to do in my writing and public speaking is to educate people in mood disorders and other mental health issues, so that they can more easily identify illness that needs treatment, in themselves and in there family, friends, co-workers.

Mental illness is not caused by demons. Our current medical science is still poking around in the dark a lot, but we do have treatment. The earlier we confront and identify our problems, the better the treatment works.


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Last updated January 9, 2003