How to Explain Bipolar Disorder to Others

Some people say there’s no way that someone without a mental illness can understand what a person with bipolar disorder goes through. I suppose there is some truth to this; I’m sure I don’t understand what it’s like to be paraplegic even though I have a sense of what it would be like not to be able to walk.

Nevertheless, there are ways of explaining tough subjects, like bipolar disorder, to others, such that they have a better chance of understanding where we’re coming from. Here’s how to do it.

Communicating the Bipolar Basics

The first thing to do when talking about bipolar disorder is to give the basics about the illness to the other person. I believe these basics are grounded in science. I think the first critical communication point is that bipolar disorder is a medical illness with biological roots in the brain. You might say something like,

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness the symptoms of which have been recorded for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We now understand that bipolar disorder is a disorder of the brain and we know this because we can see it on scans. We know that there are parts of my brain that are physically smaller than parts of your brain. Bipolar disorder is also highly genetic. If you have a bipolar parent your chance of having a serious mental illness is about 50%. And finally, we know that people who have undergone greater life stressors have an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder.

Communicating Bipolar Symptoms

Once the basics are covered then you need to explain some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder and some of the basic terms. Perhaps like,

Bipolar is characterized by the presence of dramatic moods; these moods are like normal emotion but extremely amplified. On the one hand you have mania (or hypomania) which is a highly elevated mood that contains symptoms like rapid speech, insomnia, agitation and elation. On the other hand there is depression, which is a highly depressed mood with symptoms like profound sadness, suicidality, changes in sleep and appetite and fatigue. These moods might last weeks, months or even longer if left untreated. There is no cure for bipolar.

When communicating bipolar symptoms I recommend you give examples that are relevant to you (as none of us are a textbook).

Communicating the Reality of Bipolar

Then comes the tougher parts. Now you need to communicate what really happens when you’re sick. You need to tell the other person what it’s really like to be depressed, manic or hypomanic. You might say,

When I’m depressed I know it because I cry spontaneously throughout the day, I sleep 12 hours a night and I lose my appetite. I also feel hopeless and think of death a lot.

When I’m hypomanic I know because I start to think really fast, talk really fast and think that the people around me seem slow and stupid. I feel like I’m incredibly special and on top of the world until I start to get highly irritated with those around me. It seems like nothing they do doesn’t bother me.

When you’re talking like this, you need to be open and honest. You can borrow my words all you like but your own honest words will likely work better.

Explaining BipolarCommunicating the Effects of Bipolar

But it’s not just enough for a person to understand what bipolar disorder is and how bipolar disorder feels to you. It’s also important that the person understand that bipolar disorder isn’t just about what’s in your head but it’s also about what’s in your life too. Bipolar disorder, after all, wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the devastating effects it has on a person’s life. For example,

When I’m depressed I feel like it’s the end of the world and I want to give up on everything. I don’t see people, I don’t answer the phone and I often feel so overwhelmed I can’t go to work. When I was at school, I wouldn’t be able to do homework for weeks at a time because my head was so clouded with depression.

When I’m hypomanic I get angry easily and find myself fighting with everyone. I also find I’m highly sexual at that time and I have urges to sleep with strangers even though I would normally never do that. I also tend to be really creative that that’s how my whole living room got painted purple one night.

Communicating Hope about Bipolar

Now, all of that is going to be overwhelming for the other person and you shouldn’t feel like you have to say all of that at one time. It might take many conversations to express all that. That’s OK. Communication is about understanding and you can’t necessarily rush that.

But it is important to communicate that there is hope too. After all, you just said some very scary things and it’s important for the other person to know that this disease isn’t the end of the world. There is hope.

You might say,

But there is good news. The good news is that I’m currently getting treatment for my bipolar disorder and I’m taking medication and going to therapy to manage the symptoms. I also follow a strict schedule and routine to minimize my bipolar symptoms. It’s not easy but I fight it every day.

Now, you might not feel the most hopeful about your bipolar, and it’s okay to say that, but at least also say that you’re doing what you can to get better and that tomorrow is another day – because it is.

Explaining Bipolar Disorder to Others

All of this is going to work as well as the effort and honesty that you put into it. It doesn’t have to flow, be brilliant or come out of a book – it just has to cover the main points and come from the most honest and open you that you can find. Because as much as people not understanding our disorder is their fault for not trying (sometimes it is) it’s also our fault for not doing a better job of explaining it. It’s an extremely challenging thing to explain bipolar disorder to another person in a way that’s really going to bring understanding but I believe that, over time, we can do it.

(I also highly recommend supplementing your own words with the words of others that speak to you. If you like something I have said, print it out and give it to your loved one. Buy a book and read it together. Sometimes the words of others can penetrate in ways that you can’t. And that’s okay too.)


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.

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  1. Denise is right. I found out who my true friends were. It was so disapointing and discouraging. I also learned a lot about my family members.
    Thank you all for being here. I just found this site yesterday and it’s helped so much already.
    Thank you Natasha for sharing and helping so many people. I am not on facebook anymore. I have found that social media only makes my issues worse. My TRUE friends know where to find me.

  2. I have a hard time explaining my bipolar to people mainly because I am a recovering addict and when I have a manic stage people automatically assume I am using again. I wish there was some way to explain that I am sober,I hate the looks I get like they are secretly trying to figure everything out. At some points I just feel like giving up because when I am using my mind and clearer I can focus on what I need to focus on.I wish my d.o.c. could be legal but will never be legal it isn’t marijuana there are meds out there that can help but if I ask for them the Dr just thinks I want to get high. Does anyone else have problems like this? Any suggestions on what I can do to get the proper help so I don’t lose everything. Thank you Sarah

  3. Well, yesterday I was in a very manic state, I cleaned the truck, cleaned my whole house, mowed the lawn and pulled weeds, talked a lot, just acting like a lunatic. My neighbor came over and tried to talk to me and I was so rude to her. I’m so embarrassed. I feel like I should say something to her, i wanted to lie and say sorry I had been drinking, I am so embarrassed about my bipolar disorder.

    • Hi c –

      I don’t think you should say you were drinking, because you weren’t, and that will create a wrong and incorrect type of impression about you. Depending on who she talks to and what she says, others could easily start hearing you are an alcoholic, etc. and that’s not necessary or helpful.

      Just tell her you realized you were rude to her and you’re sorry, it wasn’t your intention to be, you just had a lot on your mind that day, and you just wanted her to know you were sorry. I bet that will go a long way with her. That’s all you have to say. You don’t need to get into anything about your bipolar disorder, it’s just not necessary. If someday she becomes a closer friend then maybe you get into that with her, until then I don’t see the benefit of it.

      Good luck!

  4. I was physically and emotionally abused by my alcoholic father . What I learned in my childhood is, keep your emotions and pain for yourself and stay out of site and out of trouble. I met my girlfriend in Grade 12. It was easy for me to be the perfect boyfriend. I did not smoke, did not use any alcohol, did not walk with the bad boys in school, and was broad up never to show any emotion when I was upset. I could dodge any anger and hide my emotions when I was criticised. I was self-sacrificing myself in any way possible to please everybody. I was in love and loved back, 6 months after Grade 12 we got married. After our Wedding we immediately started a family. When my first son was born, I promised myself that I will be involved in my children’s lives and be the Father that I wished I had. I will never drink alcohol or hit them, I will keep my emotions for myself and never show anger towards them. In my life I saw how alcohol change people’s behaviour and expose their real emotions. During that time I was good in avoiding confrontation with everybody. I became the peacemaker and only interact calmly with them if they become aggressive. The rest of the time I kept my mouth shut and emotions in tacked. I wanted to be the perfect man that do not drink, do not have emotional outbursts and be the husband and father that my wife and I never had. My silent behaviour during social interaction eventually took over my whole personality. My wife question my silent behaviour after interaction with the family. She also started to question the fact that I do not show my real emotions towards her and that I avoid any healthy disagreements with her in our marriage. I was unable to open up and show my real emotions. This become a real problem in my life. I only express my real frustration, of not being capable of exposing my emotions to others, in my sport and on paper at work by righting it in letters. I never showed these letters to anyone and believe me they were not meant to be read by any human being. I felt a lot better afterwards and destroyed them. These letters become my dark side of my life and I knew there was something wrong in my personality, but my wife and I became so involved in raising our children and building our careers, that we did not have the time or energy to address our issues. I felt that if I stay in control of my emotions, nothing will go wrong, and I can keep this up for the rest of my life. The stress in our careers and pressures from our dysfunctional families eventually court up with us. My wife were experiencing Panic Attacks and used anti-depressants. At the age of 52 I started showing signs of depression. I when to a Doctor, that put me on Citalopram and later on Cilift. It did not help for the depression but I stayed on Cilift believing that it will take some time to work. I learnt afterwards that Citalopram can increase the likelihood of precipitation of a mixed/manic episode in patients at risk for bipolar disorder. After 18 months on Cilift I lost control over my emotions. Then It happened in the middle of the night. It came to me as a spiritual event where I must chose between Satan and the Holy Ghost. The next morning I started to talk. Beginning at the age of 5. Everything that happened or that I think what happened in my childhood came out. I talked fast and unstoppable for 6 days. I didn’t need any sleep and was full of energy. I enjoyed socialisation and interaction with people and family. I tried to solve everybody’s problems. Nobody knew what was going on with me. After 6 days on this high, I crushed down in a deep dark place. I started accusing and blaming my wife and family of things in our life that never happened. I was again unstoppable. They took me to the Hospital but I booked myself out before any diagnose could be made. Eventually my wife and I visited a psychologist for 6 or 7 sessions. He tried to put me on medication for the sickness Bipolar Depression, but I silently took Cilift and not his medication. My family found out about this and they destroyed all the Cilift. Eventually after 6 weeks and 2 Hospitalisations, a psychiatrist put me on Serequal XR 1800mg and 2 months later added Epilim 900mg. This medication took all reality away from me. My wife could not handle the things that I said and wrote to her and divorced me. I remember her words after my initial crush down, that she thought she was happily married the past 33 years. After and during the divorce, I isolated myself in a rented room for months. I started to have severe side effects from the medication. I did not trust my psychiatrist and slowly month by month took less dosses of the medication, up to a point that I considered suicide. I then went to a psychiatrist that I trusted and she change my medication to Serequal XR 300mg and Lamitor 200mg but she said it can take up to 3 months to work. After 12 months my mood went further down and I ended up again in a very dark place. I started righting letters to my x-wife again describing in detail what she apparently did wrong in our marriage, not realising that I am going through the stages off grief due to our divorce and going deeper in a Manic Depression. This was the final straw for my x-wife and family. For the first time in 12 months I started working again forcing myself to generate an income. My mood swings went up and down during the day. I could not concentrate for long and my short term memory was effecting my work. When I crushed my car during a laps in concentration, I suddenly woke up and realised that I need to learn to manage the sickness. The medication alone will not do it. Well, it happened for me a week ago, after 3 months on the latest medication and 14 months of constant manic depression episodes. My mood swings suddenly become 10 times better to manage. I am now realistically going through the grieving proses, due to the loss of my wife. This is very painful because my sole is still bind to her, but I think I am strong enough to deal with the sickness and the grief. It is still difficult for me to understand my family’s denial of the sickness. They were involved in all the phases of the sickness, from the Hyper Manic High to the Manic Depression phases. They judge me for the things that I said and wrote to them as the real me. They said I manipulated the doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists to say that I am Bipolar 1. There was a time I believed them and stopped the medication for a week. After 7 days off no sleep, minimal food, and considering suicide again, I came to my senses and took the medication again. It took me 3 weeks to function as a person again. I have accepted their denial of the sickness because they are still dealing with the pain off the things that I said and I think they will never move on to acknowledge and understand my sickness. Sometimes I wish I had a brain tumour or genetic cancer instead off the Bipolar sickness to make it more acceptable for them. .

    • I think that the ignorant people who judge and stigmatized depression and bipolar are the people who make it worse, just look at Harrys post. What a Shitty, disgusting, ignorant family. I wouldn’t have been as strong as Harry.If my parents treated me like that, I would have killed myself already. Harry I wish I could talk to you

    • Hey, I just read your post here and want you to know that I am very happy for you that you are beginning to realize the truth. Also that you are strong enough to find truth. I am sure that your family love you, just trying to protect their self.

      The words you said here are so very helpful to me. I feel that you should know that. I have been in a relationship with a man with your issues. I love him very much however never really understood what life was for him. Or why he changes on me so very often. I always try to believe that he loves me. Things that he says makes that very difficult a lot of the time.

      This page, and your account has opened my understanding volumes. I know that you mostly have a hard time seeing from their eyes what life has been like loving you. Trust me its very hard to love someone that seems to dislike you often. Also think that they are wright about issues that they are not seeing correct at all.

      I want you to know that your family have to be wonderful people. Because most people don’t even give you the time of day long term. But the fact that you are working to learn what you have done to their lives, will help you all over time. I want to thank you for your honest words.

      They have met the World for me. I believe that if you begin to trust your family when they tell you that you are off that day, time etc. You may really find a way to fight yourself and help you to heal. You may always have the issues return but when someone that truly loves you says honey you are off, stop listen, believe and start your understanding right there.

      Trust them to look out for now, themselves and you. Believe them they have spent to many years dealing with this with you not to really care. Trust that truth as well. Trust that people that don’t care won’t waist time with you. Only to laugh at you or make themselves feel better about themselves.

      Know this and will what you want to hear ,while laughing at you the whole time. Never giving thought to how this will effect those that really do care and work hard to keep staying in the life of someone that treats them badly without regrets.

      Because this is what it feels like to the ones desperately trying to protect you and themselves. I wish you the best. Learn to trust their love so that when they are telling you that you are slipping away again you will know its true and that will help you all. May GOD keep you and richly bless you.

      • Sylvia, I admire you for your dedication to the man you love that suffers with bipolar. How you’ve learnt to understand him.

        I suffer with bipolar, I have been showing signs of it since I was a toddler. My Mom knew my Dad has it yet he denied treatment or anything to do with doctors.
        He now lives on the streets by choice because he simply cannot face society.
        My mom is my hero though! She brought me up knowing that I can talk to her about how I feel and that it was okay for me to be upset and depressed. She sat with me when I’d have my fits and shed comfort me in my need and she gives me the stirn talking to I need when I get out of hand.
        I am now becoming an adult and learning to stand up on my own two feet. It is so extremely challenging..
        I have also recently been engaged to by a man who is extremely inlove with me! He wants to learn as much as possible about bipolar and about how can help me when I hit my extremes.

        I’m telling you all this because of how you described what you go through when your loved one has his ups and downs.. You see, I am always stuck in my head when it comes to my ups and downs. I see myself snapping at him and unnecessarily hurting him because I am feeling so agro and just spiteful for no apparent reason. I can’t quite understand how it is that I can see myself doing this but I’m unable to stop it from happening!

        I thought that maybe it will help if I look at myself through his eyes when I am having an episode..
        Would you be able to help me by telling me what you see in your loved one when he has episodes?

        I don’t know if this will help our situation but I can see he is taking strain and that seems to just be making me even worse!
        I truly hate this desease!

        I’d appretiate your response. ????
        You can email me if you’d like:

    • Wow, Harry.. What an incredible story. You have dealt with some insane situations in your life. I am in awe of the fact that you are able to write all this out and tell people about it and also of how positive you are about keeping on, dispute the difficulties you have faced and will face in the future. You are indeed an amazing encouragement! Thank you so so much for sharing your testimony! I really am so amazed at how awesome you are for where you are right now, emotionally. Keep staying strong Harry! The Lord be with you wherever you go!

  5. Why is to hard cant think straight I’m always tired soooo depressed tried so many medication s that dont seem to work does anyone one know what works best

  6. I wasn’t exactly sure if there was a better place to say this, but I really want to thank you, Natasha. I know that in your mind, you are just doing what you do – but in my mind, you’re a special kind of hero. Your writings are making my transition from “there is something seriously wrong with me” to “Okay, so I’m bipolar…” a heck of a lot easier.
    Here’s the kicker: I have never been officially diagnosed as bipolar by a doctor (pleeeease don’t anyone judge me for this! I have spent more than 10 years researching and doing my homework to figure out what’s wrong with me so I can fix it. Believe me when I say that bipolar disorder was the last thing I wanted it to be, yet the only thing that fully identifies with what goes on in my head) – and I’m having a hard time communicating how severe my illness can be when I go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. I think I tend to sugarcoat it because I often do that with a lot of things, and because I’m afraid someone will put me in an inpatient facility the moment that I mention suicidal thoughts or self harm. And I just really can not afford to be locked in an inpatient facility because of my life and family circumstances.
    I have been in and out of treatment for “depression and anxiety” for the past 11 years. I’ve been on anti-depressants several times and each time, I tried to take my own life – or at least came very close. I would spend a short amount of time in an inpatient facility and manipulate my own behavior, and of course- sugarcoat it so that I could be released. “I was just having a hard time because my boyfriend broke up with me,” or something like that.
    During the last 5 years, I was highly defensive about bipolar disorder because someone accused me of being so. Granted, they only accused me of being bipolar because I said “I think I might be bipolar” – but the circumstances of the accusations were (in my mind) going to make me lose my children forever – hence the extreme defensiveness I have had for the last 5 years. With this defense comes a great deal of desperation for normalcy. I have been unsuccessful in achieving actual normalcy, and have settled for the illusion of normalcy. No matter how I am feeling or what I am thinking – I absolutely have to appear normal to the outside world. If I don’t, they will use it against me and my life will become even more difficult than it already is. Anyway – I explain this to paint a picture of why I haven’t been diagnosed. I couldn’t let it happen. I was too afraid the world would find out and my life would be ruined forever.
    I have recently realized that it is in fact, the illness that is ruining my life – and if I don’t get the help that I need, I will end up in the same place I was 4 years ago, and 4 years before that when I tried to end it all. I’m seeing a psychologist who wants me to try all kinds of flower remedies and make a bunch of lifestyle changes to improve the situation, which I believe could help… (and because I really wanted to not be on medication due to my past experiences) but I honestly feel like it’s hard enough to maintain what quality of life I have right now without having to start doing a ton of extra stuff that I don’t have the energy to do. I think that in itself could send me over the edge. So after joining a bipolar support group and learning about others’ experiences with bipolar and medications, I’m on the hunt for a psychiatrist – deathly afraid of medication, but knowing that it is probably the only thing that is going to help me. I swear if I walk into one more psychiatrist’s office and they try to give me anti-depressants without mood stabilizers, I’m going to scream…and maybe that’s what needs to happen for them to realize that I am not “just depressed and insecure and meek.”
    Again – thank you for your writings! They have helped me put words where I had none, and have helped me learn how to cope with the misunderstanding world around me. Many of your blogs have made my feelings feel more validated – as I am still learning what is part of the bipolar and what is normal on an emotional level.

  7. I’m not trying to be a hater just a realist, but I couldn’t get through this whole article. I didn’t think it was very accurate; seriously though who would explain being bipolar to someone like that. Even though bipolar is much more complex than what some people think; it doesn’t have to be that long and drug out. Don’t make it so complicated and stick to the basics. I’m bipolar with a side order of ADD and have been since I can remember. Like I said I’m not hating on you just saying I don’t agree with the article, but I don’t have to….it’s just my opinion; others may like it. I know I just get tired of the stereo type associated with being bipolar and people thinking being bipolar is about being happy or upset. I have explained to people in my life there is so much more to it than that.

  8. When someone asks me to explain myself, I get instant “deer in the head lights feeling” and anxiety. Years of untreated bipolar, diagnosed 8 years ago at age 52, has certainly impacted my ability to express myself. Also, I find my past experiences seem to fade like child birth, although I remember the horribleness of it all. I will post your article to my FB page, my friends benefit from your insight. Above all, I benefit the most, because I see myself through your eyes and I dont feel like a freak, which I once thought I was. Thanks so much, Natasha :)

    Victoria :)

  9. I need help. I have been dating a guy for 3 1/2 years. He doesn’t get the bipolar thing because I am very high functioning, and because it is a long-distance relationship. The problem is, he doesn’t EVER want to hear about it, or talk about it. I have tried to educate him with articles from this blog and he says he reads them, but we never talk about them. He doesn’t know why he is so resistant. What do I do? If he can’t talk about it, how can I ever marry him and expect him to help take care of me?????

    • Sorry to say but, if your significant other isn’t willing to listen to your problems, then they aren’t really right for you. If he isn’t willing to listen to you talk to him about it, then he isn’t going to be very supportive. My boyfriend asks me how he can help when I’m depressed and I told him unfortunately there isn’t much he can do but be there for me until my mood shifts. You need someone that you can be open with so you’re not feeling like you have to hold in how you feel. Bipolar disorder affects your life in many ways, so what good is it to be with someone that you can’t even tell them what is going on with you?

    • Honestly just let him know how important it is to you for the both of you to talk about it. If he truely loves you he should support you and want to show that support by talking with you about it.

    • Hey Mary, I have a similar problem. Just that I met my boyfriend in a maniac phase . He just loved the confidence he witnessed in me. Also all the ideas that I was getting for the future. During this time we decided we would get married. Anyhow then the depression set it. Ideas striped coming. He couldn’t understand the change. I was finally after years of this torturous illness diagnosed with bipolar. I have accepted it because I see the pattern over years. But he completely denies it and believes its all in my head. He doesn’t want to understand there are days I feel confidant enough to talk to the president and then there are days when I feel like Shit and I can’t look in the mirror at myself because I hate myself so much.
      I am on medication but I do not know if its fair to get married and ruin another life with this unpredictable dieses.can ppl please suggest what I should do.

  10. My experience dictates that if you have Bipolar (like me), you should tell as few people as possible. Ideally, telling no one would be best. After I was discharged from the psych ward, I made the foolish mistake of sharing my experience with two different friends about what happened to me (I was well at the time). They never spoke to me again.
    I have lost quite a number of friends over the years when I told them I am Bipolar. Now that I am 40 and have had this illness for 20 years, I can say that keeping your mouth shut at all times is best. Never tell an employer, friend or even family member. It will ALWAYS bite you, leaving you feeling alone, ashamed and foolish. And another thing. If someone tells you “If there is anything I can do, let me know” or “Let me know if I can do anything to help”, the relationship or friendship is done/over.
    Sad but true. Those friendships I still have left that are strong are with those that have no clue about my illness or my time spent in the psych ward.
    Please disagree with me as I would like to have a glimmer of hope that my experiences are not universal.

    • Hi Chris! Im very sorry that youve gone through all that loss and hurt, and have that opinion now. Although i am glad you have made it 20 yrs later! I belive everyday with a mental illness is an accomplishment!

      I too have lost friends, and also romantic relationships. Ive mostly heard, i understand and i am ok with it. I seem to loose them when i start showing syptoms. I believe those people were not meant to be in my life. I am who i am, and to me the honesty feels good, after pain of rejection wears off. All of my friends i have now, im 31, know. And truly do care and support me. Even that ive been inpatient many times. I just had a horrible episode, and if it werent for them, it might ave gone different. They are a wonderful select few whom i dearly love back!

      Family, well, they know, some understand and are great, and others flat out dont and even make me feel worse. Honestly, that stinks, but ive learned just because you cant talk to everyone about bipolar, doesnt mean you cant talk to anyone!

      But i believe there is definitly HOPE :) . I know my next relationship, im still going to tell them very early. I know now, i am worth it. Despite being bipolar, and if they are worth it, they will try and learn, accept, communicate. Love me for me! It is a very big part of me, but not the only thing! There are people out there like that! Unfortunatly i feel like the bad experiences sometimes has stopped me from good ones in the future if i let them! So ive had to learn to open back up and keep trying. Im personally glad i did, i feel my being honest with friends who love me, means the world! Just wanted to share my expirences with you! Im aslo glad you do have good friends! Take care!

      • I appreciate your words of encouragement Elisa.

        I have always found it surprising that friends and individuals dismiss me (or become very awkward) after finding out that I am Bipolar because I am highly educated (multiple degrees) and successful. I run my own record company, am a successful and recognized classical composer, producer and professional classical musician. I was also a very good private music teacher up until 2 years ago when I had yet another breakdown.
        Despite my success, I sometimes feel that people think I am dangerous, incapable, or un-ballanced. I often feel embarrassed after such an experience and even experience self-loathing over it. I find crowds and strangers very uncomfortable and not understanding, and as such, I prefer to be and work alone most of the time.
        I have learned to accept that my energy varies widely, and sometimes I can accomplish a great deal, and other times, very little. There was one year when I composed almost 100 compositions, while others where I may have written less than 5. I embrace this as it is the nature of my illness, but it is hard for people to understand. They associate me with the classic tortured artist who will cut off his ear at any time.
        This stereotypical portrayal for me is hurtful and disrespectful. Does the fact that I attempted suicide and ended up in the psych-ward mean that I am someone who should be avoided because I am dangerous and/or useless? Does it mean that my ability to contribute to society is less than “normal” people?
        I wish people could accept me on my terms and as I am; recognizing my merits and accomplishments. Living as a composer is a special world that I want to share with people, but it is not always prudent to do so when you are Bipolar.
        So again, my mouth will stay shut almost always. Definitely don’t tell people if you are or have been on disability either; that is asking for even more judgment (I have some ugly stories on that one including judgemental family members).
        And one major worry is that people may deem my Record Label less worthy if they knew someone with Bipolar ran it. Similarly, musicians are less likely to work with me if they are aware. That is such nonsense considering my talent and dedication to my art.
        Incidentally, running a record label is great for someone with Bipolar as it is extremely accommodating for swinging moods and energy levels.

    • I have the opposite view as far as that goes. If someone chooses not to talk to me because I have bipolar disorder then they are not someone I want or need in my life. I’m very open about my illness and there are still people who choose to be in my life because they care about me. Anyone who dismisses you because of it is not worth being in your life to begin with.

    • I know you wrote this about a year ago, but I’m going to throw in my two sence worth. I’ve been bipolar for over 30 years and I feel you should never be ashamed of your story. Some may be turned away, but it could serve as an inspiration or motivate someone else. I don’t believe you should never tell anyone. How stong are these friendships if you can’t be truethful with them? If someone is a true friend then it won’t matter what you tell them they will still stick around and support you. If you tell someone and they quit being freinds with you over something so foolish then they really weren’t your friend to begin with.

  11. I am about to be 64 years old. I have had many and varied experiences in my life. I have had many “bad” things in my life; I have had many very good things in my life. An absolute certainty is that I have had brain chemical (mental illness) problems throughout this. I dropped out of college and worked for peace and justice on a commune in rural WI. I went back to school because I realized that things were not changing fast enough, and that I needed a job. I taught college English. Then, in my early forties, I hit the wall and couldn’t function. Over the course of many years, certainly with periods of great despair, I managed with medication to outrun my illness. I have a disability for mental illness and have received SS, Medicare and my pension since 1997. I am so very lucky. before Medicare, I incurred a debt of $350,000.00 because of an incompetent psychiatrist…over 50 unnecessary shock treatments and the like. (I do think that ECT can be very effective in many cases.). Finally, here is my bottom line . The most intelligent and progressive people are at first willing and glad to offer help and support with mental illness. However, if one does not. “Get better,” all bets are off. It’s over. Because of my incomplete diagnosis, I became psychotic, and went to jail six times. I lost my family. I had two friends who stuck around. That’s just the way it is. For some eight years with the help of a number of good medications, I have been in a remission as such. I have my family although my adult children will not come home because of memories. I firmly believe that I am one of the lucky ones. I have always been an eternal optimist. Still, I do not believe that it is even remotely possible to explain our illness to even a small minority of the population. I am not crazy. I’m sorry, Natasha, I have great respect for you, but I so firmly believe that the word exploits our condition into an even greater misunderstanding of our situations. How often do people say about anyone who seems a bit out of the ordinary, “Oh, she’s just crazy.” After an alcoholic behaves in an absurd manner, it’s so often said, “Oh, she was just drunk.” That seems to be acceptable. “Crazy” denotes bizarre behavior and complete lack of control as defined in our society. I have an illness, similar to Lupus, Cancer and the like. But, I believe firmly after a lifetime that I cannot imagine the day when bipolar disorder will be accepted as a real bodily illness and not simply as “crazy” behavior as a result of unhindered lack of control by an individual who could certainly if he or she CHOSE to do so control the behavior. You know, the not trying hard enougthing
    – the implication of “phony” behavior to garner attention or whatever. Yes, I talk too quickly and too much, and I will always be ill. After five past suicide attempts and much strife, I want to live and find all of the happiness that I can. My heart goes out o all of you who are suffering. In my mind, I feel that we need each other. Sadly, I never expect to see the day when bipolar disorder will be understood. Still…………….I NEVER thought I would see the day when my president would be African-American! What a gift that is to me. Okay, in all of my circle of pessimism, I’ve come back to my inexhaustible optimism….I will try to believe that we will someday be understood.. Note: although I taught college advanced writing for years, I no longer proofread!

  12. HI, I wanted to let people know I wrote a book for kids explaining what bi polar is so parents have a tool to explain their disability to their children.

    It’s available on KINDLE,, and the book is titled
    “My Mother has Bi Polar”.

  13. I appriciate your blog, i needed to get back to basics, do my research, and continue learning. Im in a place now where i can. Your blog helps tremendosly! Also the comments of others help. Even when I disagree.

    Charles- I agree that mental illness is not spoken of enough, not even close, in general in society. Which in turn i believe, not only makes society ignorant, but makes it worse and harder for people with menal illness to even admit it sometimes. Or talk about it without fear of being judged. Thats why this post is so important to me. Flat out guidelines for me, make it a whole lot easier. Im not ashamed of being bioplar with bpd, but when put on the spot, such as work, i tend to go blank and stumble on my words. I need and want to feel confident, informed, even when i dont expect the question. Also, often times for me, the bpd is harder to manage! Ive done a bpd course 2 times years ago. Im finally again working on that in therapy now again. Im thankful for that.

    I always tell a person im going to date upfront. Very early. A good friend used to disagre but after we had a long talk, told her mu reasoning, she agreed. Its part of me, its not going away, and its serious. I need someone who will make the decision to stay, and accept me. Some people want nothing to do with me after that too. It hurts but I feel its better to know then, and be honest. If they stay, we learn together! And talk about it! And i will use this post from now on to better organize thoughts, feelings, facts, and discussion! Thank you as always!

    As far as “contolling” yourself goes. I have been in constant therapy, on meds for the last 11 years. I have times where i feel as though betewen therapy and meds, and working hard on myself, I can resist urges better. Then there are times I can not. Ive lost friends before because i have been too much. Ive learned, actually this goes to my basic life princibles in general, to forgive myself. Other people judge me enough and I hate that. Why do it to myself.

    I saw something online. A therapist in front of a group held a glass of water up half full. Suprisingly she asked the group how much it weighed. Various answer were said. ” The weight does not matter Then the therapist said, if i hold it for 1 min its not a problem. If i hold it for a hour my arm will ache. If i hold it for a day my arm will become numb and paralized. The weight does not change. But the longer i hold it the heavier it becomes.”

    That made sense. Due to my obssesive thinking I have a hard time forgiving myself for my episodes. (Amoung other things :) ) If ican not move forward, and realize this is part of my illness, and continue fighting to feel better in the present, how can i expect my loved ones to? Something im really working on its not easy.


    • Elisa –

      I’m sure you didnt mean to, but you signed off with my name!
      Of course you are writing about YOUR experience…

      • Judy, yes i see that! I apologize, i must of sent it incomplete by accident. I definitly am talking about my experiences! I wanted to say to you that i used to feel the same way when telling people about my mental illness. Thats why your name was there, i must of cut it off mistakenly. Still getting used to the touch screen :) Thank you for letting me know!

  14. Does anyone know about the medicine Ebselen and if it can be prescribed? It has recently been tested to work as a mimic for lithium minus the side effects.

    • Hi Matt,

      The little bit of research I just did on it said that the drug has never been approved for any use and thus is not prescribable. It made it up to phase III trials for the treatment of stroke but was then abandoned.

      It’s now in phase II trials for bipolar disorder and apparently will soon move into phase III. This means it’s still some years off in terms of availability.

      And just to be clear, while the headlines are saying “lithium mimic” that’s not exactly the case. It just appears to block a specific enzyme like lithium does – that doesn’t mean it can match all its effects. And, from the article I read they are just saying it’s anti-manic, no one’s said it’s anti-depressant just yet.

      – Natasha Tracy

  15. I missed something somewhere…. Bipolar is detected, specifically, in brain scans because one area of a brain is smaller than another? Seriously? Bipolar, itself, can be diagnosed via a look at a brain scan and a particular area of said brain, if shrunken, specifically denotes Bipolar disorder? You’d think that would be ALL OVER the news… a brain scan diagnoses a specific mental illness, whoo hhooo!

    Sorry, but it doesn’t. It denotes that there is shrinkage and that with shrinkage, or plaques, or divits that some response and/or sense and/or cognitive ability, etc. will be affected. It doesn’t denote specifically, a mental illness.

    Outside of that: Each person who is diagnosed by some diagnostician as having symptoms of Bipolar – is different than the next person, who is diagnosed by some diagnostician as having symptoms of Bipolar. In addition, which no one wants to discuss, is the fact that another diagnostician down the road may look at the exact same symptoms and diagnose something different. No one ever wants to discuss that.

    My “elated” side of my supposed Bipolar (cause really, diagnoses change) does not involve a heightened sense of sexuality for which I act upon by cheating on my partner/spouse, etc. Now, to spend money – yeah and to make stupid stupid judgment decisions, oh yeah!

    Still, you have to be able to “control” yourself with your behaviors because it’s a mood disorder illness that produces impulsiveness to do stuff you’d normally not do if it weren’t for your mood disorder producing the impulse to “behave” or “react”. Many with Bipolar, simply do not “try” to control themselves and instead throw up the “but, you see.. I have Bipolar and can’t help myself so yeah, I cheated on you and I’ll do it again, but it’s this illness I have and you’ll have to forgive me. Why are you not forgiving me? I told you it’s cause I’m mentally ill and can’t help myself.”

    Take meds all you want; if you still react and behave per your mood impulse… you will still have living with you issues and folks will still not understand, but will see you as someone not to hang out and around with or continue said relationship with… because though you are taking that plethora of medication to numb down – kill – eradicate – speed up, etc.. whatever symptom or symptoms currently bothering you & others… you can still be one hot mess of a person.

    • Hi Tabby,

      I don’t think you missed anything. I didn’t say it was diagnosable using a brain scan (although, likely it is, we’re just not at a place where we can do it reliably) what I said was we can see bipolar in the brain – and we can. There are many changes in the brain that are correlated to bipolar disorder and actually several parts of the brain that are shrunken.

      – Natasha Tracy

      • Guess what? Those same areas, that appear shrunken, can also denote Alzheimer’s, Seizure activity, dementia… and this is the thing… THERE IS NOTHING TO MEDICALLY DIAGNOSE MENTAL ILLNESS, NOTHING… NOTHING… NOTHING.

        Yes we can research, scan, and say.. well this person has Bipolar symptoms and this part of the brain appears smaller than another so, this must be an indicator of… but it’s NOT the thing that caused specifically Bipolar. Many symptoms of Bipolar also mimic symptoms of other illnesses… many other illnesses have symptoms mimicking Bipolar and other mental illness(es).

        UNTIL there is a definitive medical scan, test, blood draw, or genome marker thingy that says point blank and without much doubt MENTAL and which kind… it is still based squarely on behavior, mood, perception, and emotion and to WHICH diagnostician is experienced enough to diagnose… because you can have a room of psychiatrists with a list of symptoms and you’ll come out with different diagnoses. This is what frustrates me.

        I was diagnosed in 2006 & again in 2008 with Bipolar disorder. I was then diagnosed by a different psychiatrist in 2009 as Major Depressive Disorder, and again in 2011. So, what changed? Did I get better? No. It was because I had 3+ different psychiatrists evaluate me.

        Meds, even you can concur, only do so much to alleviate symptom intensity BUT they do not CURE or totally eradicate the symptoms. Folks, including yourself, can be on a plethora of meds for years and STILL have the symptoms. Yet, the behavior aspect can be managed and controlled, if you learn and that’s through therapy which many many many folks simply do not want to do or go through

        • Hmmm…The two different diagnoses by different drs. may be due to the way you presented during that time.
          It is dependent on the therapist, but also on info from the patient. But a good therapist will know what types of questions to ask, and will also be able to observe changes in mood, energy, behavior.

          The best therapists I’ve known suffer from mood disorders themselves, but that is my experience. I wonder how others were able to find good pdocs outside of luck?

    • Im sure there are folks who use bipolar as an excuse, and I agree that we should definitely work at controlling symptoms and behaviors that result, but to be fair, there are people who still struggle to keep their symptoms at bay even if they are taking medication and in therapy. We know that it takes time for some folks to find the right drug combination, and therapy is practically useless unless the person is stablized. Then there is the group that is not properly diagnosed for years – up to ten years! Not obvious because they spend the majority of their time depressed.

      Is it fair to call them a “hot mess of a person” based on a situation in which a person behaved outlandishly and was not their normal self? Really startling to me how judgemental people can be. If you suffer from bipolar, you should know how difficult it can be!

      BUT I do get where you’re coming from. I had a friend in my past that was ALWAYS behaving in ways that negatively affected my life. Not only my life, but many others as well.

      Then there are others who people ostracized not because it is right to, but because it is the easiest thing to do and perhaps because they never cared about the person (they are ostracizing) anyway.

      It will never be so cut and dry. It is not the easiest thing to talk about or work out, definitely difficult to bring up when there are judgements flying everywhere and people are simply not receptive to hearing what you need to say, no matter how well thought out and calmly you deliver the information.

      Obviously, it also depend on the overall situation.

    • Sadly breakthrough findings regarding brain science does NOT end up “all over the news; ” nevertheless, most differences in brains between individuals with such mental illnesses ARE discernible under brain scans with highly sophisticated brain machinery. A few of the HUGE stumbling blocks of our society are ignorance, apathy and fear. The sooner these stumbling blocks are removed, the sooner real healing and effective treatment can begin.

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  17. As usual, you manage to bring up several points that concern my ( our ) condition. The worst symptom I have is dealing with and controlling the anger. Most of the time, it comes from an extremely agitated state of frustration and impatience. I could give numerous examples, such as dealing with waiting in supermarket lines, and someone does something really ridiculous in my mind, like using a check to pay for a fifty cent item. I’ve actually walked away after slamming down my items on the counter. With that said, I’m sure it isn’t hard for anyone reading this to imagine how quick my temper can be. When I was younger, this sudden explosive anger was known as “the Des Jardins Temper,” to anyone who knew us. And my father, who unfortunately I take after, made me look like a clawless kitten ! I’ve spent my entire adult life making sure I wasn’t acting or behaving like him. But I’m always glad you’re out there Natasha, because sooner or later you’ll bring up something of importance to me, and I’ll feel much less alone with the many issues, social or otherwise, that we spend all of our lives dealing with.

    • Hi Robert,
      I just found this blog by connecting with Natasha and read your comment above. I had the EXACT same experience growing up – I was a very angry and assertive girl, my parents said I have the family temper and that I’m cursed. My father is bipolar and my mother is depressed, I had a toxic childhood and like you, do everything I can NOT to be like either of them. But it’s hard.

      I go to weekly support groups run by the DBSA and find them very helpful. Along with meds, exercise, and knowing when I need to step out of a situation…..Best wishes. Nancy

  18. This article is so helpful Natasha! Thank you for writing it. You write with such clarity. It’s so important that we communicate this disorder we have to others. There is so much misinformation. We need to speak from our experiences. And give the message of hope. Brilliant job!

  19. Thanks so much for this. It reminded me that I need to explain myself more instead of relying on someone’s “understanding” of my illness. The language is clear and easy to understand. Thanks again.

  20. Well, this is another helpful article. I have a really hard time talking about this. Unfortunately, I giggle, but it is really due to nervousness rather than because I find it humorous (I really don’t).

    It’s sort of like telling someone that you pooped in your pants. It is something that is difficult to talk about, and really embarrassing and humiliating. You try to make light of it with a giggle, but what you really want to do is cry and hide. If it is not discussed, you can feel the weight of it in the room.

    I’ve talked about it with others only because they witnessed my meltdown, but afterwards I never want to talk to them again. I am still telling people I have another medical condition.


  21. I’m sorry but, to the person that says a person with BPD “can’t understand the way a person with a mental illness thinks” is truly ignorant. BPD IS a mental illness!! Just because it’s categorized as a behavioral disorder, it CERTAINLY is a mental illness, as the origin of the illness stems from chemical imbalance in the way the brain governs mood and thought. HEL-LO! It used to called “manic-depressive” and is CLOSELY tied to schizophrenia. On the flip side of what that person said; how would he/she know how a person with BPD thinks either? How would a person with ANY different mental illness or behavioral disorder know what anyONE feel or think any differently for that matter?