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.
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.
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.)