Yes! It’s World Bipolar Day today. March 30th, which is also the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who, long after he died, was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder based on things he did when he was alive. He probably did have Bipolar. The signs were there.
Bipolar Disorder is a severe mental illness, where doctors nod and frown and have you fill in DASS42 surveys to see if you need hospitalisation. That sort of severe. Just recently, society has dipped its toes into the weird ellipse shape in the middle of a Venn diagram, where on one side there are all sorts of myths about Bipolar Disorder and on the other side there’s Kanye, Demi Lovato, Russell Brand, Carrie Fischer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Stephen Fry, and lots of others who, by disclosing their diagnosis, are de-stigmatising the illness.
The number of famous or infamous people with a Bipolar diagnosis eradicates myth number one, which is that Bipolar is rare. Nope. Not really. Let’s go with two million adults in the US. Or one in fifty Australians. Not that rare.
And because there are quite a few Bipolar-havers, the second myth pops up a lot. This one; It’s just mood swings and everyone’s a bit Bipolar, aren’t they? No, Karen, they’re not. If it was just mood swings, then the entire government of Australia would be under psychiatric care with a very clear diagnosis of ‘just mood swings’. So, it’s more than a bit of a swing at the mood playground. Bipolar is being on the swing, which goes too high, then stops suddenly, flinging you off to the merry-go-round which is rotating independently and much too quickly, so it hurls you off like a giant centrifuged emotional glob, straight to the seesaw, where despair flops onto the other end and skyrockets you into the sky for a massive dose of mania, but you land back on the horrible bark stuff they put on the ground in local playgrounds. Then you try the swings again to see if it was a one-off. It’s not just mood swings, and everyone is not a little bit Bipolar.
There are all sorts of colourful, pretty, chewy even, vitamins marketed for those with Bipolar Disorder. The vitamin proponents are really into the mantra of ‘Exercise Will Fix Everything’ and ‘Eat Kale And Your Moods Will Improve’ or “It’s All In Your Head’. Well, that last one is accidentally and spectacularly true, but the rest? Not always. Bipolar Disorder is a lifelong illness and there currently is no cure. However, it can be well-managed with medication, which needs to be tweaked and poked and tested and some Bipolar-havers don’t get their medication just right for up to five years. That’s fun while your brain is trying to kill you.
There’s another myth that says; people with Bipolar are pretty normal, and just going through a bad patch. In the circle labelled ‘myth’ in our Venn diagram, there’s the statement; “Anything That Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger”. Gosh, what an inspirational message. Sure, saying that to cheer up a person who’s lost their dog might help (probably won’t, you condescending arse) but don’t say it to Bipolar-havers, because Bipolar Disorder can kill. At least 25% to 60% of people with Bipolar Disorder will attempt suicide and between 4% and 16% will die from suicide. They. Will. Die. By. Killing. Themselves.
Those numbers indicate what a very severe mental illness Bipolar Disorder actually is, so it didn’t help when celebrity-of-the-moment Kanye West piped up and enthused that when he’s having a Bipolar high, he feels a “heightened connection with the Universe” and like he has a “superpower”. Apparently, a connection to the Universe is something to be desired, despite every common mania behaviour of poor decision-making, obnoxious attitude, rapid speech, sometimes unlawful acts, lack of sleep, racing thoughts that make you feel as if your brain is only inside your head through sheer willpower joining in with the Universal fun.
Bipolar highs, or mania, have long been associated with creativity, which might explain the number of creative people sitting in their little circle in the Venn diagram. But, Bipolar doesn’t enhance creativity and creativity doesn’t cause Bipolar. In fact, treatment often allows Bipolar-havers to think more clearly, which will likely improve their work. Being creative while cuddled inside a high is awful and euphoric.
It is akin to riding a wave that starts as a perfect swell, then builds and the wind whips through your hair so that you’re starring in your own advertisement, then the wave forms more of its shape under your board and you’ve grown five extra arms and you’re emailing and painting and writing that novel and finishing that course and looking through Pinterest to find your next project and it’s all so much but you can do it because you’re invincible with a superpower and obnoxious and talking so quickly that you start your next sentence before you’ve even finished your last one and you’re in charge and the boss and you fundamentally believe that you can fly off that apartment block because you’ve disconnected from reality but go on do it you know you can and…then suddenly the wave disappears. Your board drops, you plummet to the earth, and you lay broken on the ground for days and months and minutes, not really remembering the wave or what happened, but knowing it was bad.
Most Bipolar-havers don’t want a Kanye-“heightened connection with the universe” or a “superpower”. Ever. The consequences are too awful to contemplate. I have the distinct feeling that Kanye made that statement while surfing a mania wave so declarations of Universe-connections, heightened or otherwise, are probably expected. I really hope Kanye’s medication regulates itself soon.
The other statement that rolls out from the myths huddle into the middle bit of the Bipolar Venn diagram where society is dipping their toes is “I Wish I Was Manic so I Could Get Things Done”. No, Kevin, you don’t wish that. See above. Waves. Surfboard. Suicide. Bipolar-havers are empathetic souls. They are the least likely mentally ill people to kill someone else (just themselves) and they would never wish manic episodes on other people. You don’t want mania. Ask for x-ray vision. Much more fun.
By the way, the ‘bi’ in Bipolar is for the now-outdated term of Manic-Depressive, which allows myth four hundred and eleventy-billion to trot on over to the middle of the Venn; Bipolar-havers are either too happy or too sad. Nope.
Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder. It’s based on brain chemicals. Bipolar-havers can be incredibly depressed or incredibly manic, but mostly, with medication, people with Bipolar Disorder can experience long periods of even, balanced mood called euthymia. It’s a lovely, entirely normal, place for a Bipolar-haver to be, because the mania is NOT normal, and depressive states are also NOT normal.
But mania and depression could become dreadfully, scarily normal for those people without medication. Those two states could be normalised for Bipolar people if the myths are allowed to gain traction and become fact. They could be normalised for those people if Bipolar Disorder becomes people’s mental illness du jour because of the collection of diagnosed celebrities. Let’s not do that. Bipolar Disorder is a severe mental illness. It’s real, has serious consequences, it isn’t fashionable because a famous person has it, it isn’t cool, and there are many Bipolar-havers just getting through life making sure their brain doesn’t kill them each day. Let’s celebrate them being here. Alive.
Happy World Bipolar Day.