bipolar parent

5 Things I Wish Someone had Told Me When I was Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder thirteen years ago, I had no idea what what that meant.

I have a chronic mental illness? What does that mean for the rest of my life? I thought.

I wished that I had someone to guide me, someone who had survived and thrived with their own bipolar disorder and could help me understand what this truly meant for me and my family.

I have been stable–and happy!–for about seven years, so I am glad to share my experience with others in the hopes of helping them. Here are the 5 things I wish someone would have told me when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

1. It Gets Better

This is the most important item on the list. Facing down an alarming diagnosis and a years-long recovery from my postpartum psychotic break, I desperately needed to hear “it gets better.”

After the break, I spent years nearly-dying in the black pit that is depression. I could not care for my infant son, leaving dirty diapers on the living room floor for weeks because I couldn’t summon the wherewithal to pick them up. Even when he aged into preschool, I was still fighting to survive.

If I had someone tell me that I would eventually come out whole and healed on the other side, I don’t know if I would have believed them at the time, but I would have looked back with gratitude.

Telling someone in the midst of a bad situation “it gets better” can help them, especially when you yourself have lived through a similar situation. If you can expound upon how you survived your own challenges, even better.

2. You May have Mixed Feelings About Your Diagnosis

When I was given the label of “bipolar disorder,” I was by turns both devastated and elated:

Devastated because I had no idea what being bipolar would mean for me and my family. Elated because I finally had a label that made sense.

The label explained so much about my behaviors until that point. I wanted to tell everyone I’d ever met that I had bipolar disorder–an impulse in the midst of a manic episode that my husband gently cautioned me against.

I found myself vacillating between utter despair at the fact that I had a mental illness that would never go away and happiness at the fact that I could start working towards recovery with a targeted approach.

You may feel mixed feelings about your diagnosis. Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid, and they don’t change your inherent value as a person. Feel whatever emotions you feel, accept them, and move on.

3. Your Meds are Crucial for Recovery

When I was first diagnosed, I had a difficult time remembering to take my medication. But once my psychiatrist prescribed me the right ones, I found that when I took my pills–and took them on time–I stabilized rather quickly.

Bipolar disorder is no joke. Many people, especially those of us with Bipolar I, cannot manage their condition without psychiatric care. I know I can’t; without my anti-psychotic and anti-depressant, I would be in a very dark place.

I wouldn’t wish my depression on anyone. Without my medication, I would not have recovered. Thankfully, with a combination of medication that works for me and talk therapy, I have been stable for years.

Take your meds. They’re there to help you. Taking medication doesn’t make you weak; quite the opposite. It’s the first step towards stabilization; the first step towards healing. No one looks down on a diabetic for taking insulin, and bipolar meds are the same: life-saving.

4. Be Honest with Your Family About Your Diagnosis

Being honest with your family about your diagnosis is probably one of the hardest parts of being diagnosed. You now have a label that carries with it a certain amount of stigma.

Like me, your family will be confused about what a chronic mental illness means for them. Hopefully they’ll want to support you in this new journey of yours.

If I hadn’t been honest with my husband, my biggest supporter, he would not have been able to respond in an appropriate manner to my bipolar mood episodes. Whether it was hypomania, mania, or depression, my episodes are dangerous to my family, as I can’t concentrate on anything but my moods and whims.

So communicating honestly with him, though extremely difficult at the beginning, became easier and easier as time went on.

Tell your family about your diagnosis. If you don’t let them in on what challenges you’re facing, they will never understand what your diagnosis means for you and for them.

5. Try to Find Cheerleaders

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder thirteen years ago, my husband and I had just graduated college and moved 1500 miles away from our friends and family. I’d also given birth to our first child six days prior.

I had no new friends in the area we lived, and I felt alone facing my diagnosis. Making friends proved extremely difficult, but I wouldn’t trade the supporters I have now, who cheer me on through my various challenges, for the world. They have helped me handle my struggles with grace and gladness.

Finding a cheerleader or two is so important when you’re facing a diagnosis, especially if they’ve been in your shoes and can understand what you’re going through.

If you have existing friends willing to help you, that’s excellent! But if you feel truly alone, immerse yourself in groups of potentially-supportive people.

You can find these people online through Discord (a chatting service) servers centered around a common interest, like a show. Or you can attend support groups online or in-person, or ask your doctor what they recommend.

Relationship building takes a ton of effort and you may be overwhelmed, especially if you’re depressed. But your friends will be so worth it.

Conclusion

Dealing with a diagnosis like bipolar disorder may feel daunting. You may feel utterly overwhelmed, especially if you’re newly-diagnosed.

I’m here to offer suggestions and reassure you that yes, it gets better. Your possibly mixed feelings about your diagnosis are valid. Take your meds, be honest with your family, and try to find cheerleaders.

Your recovery and stabilization from bipolar disorder may take years. And that’s okay. Keep fighting the good fight. You’ve got this.

I wish you well in your journey.

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Men’s Health Week: Bipolar Disorder in Men

June 10th-16th is Men’s Health Week, celebrated the world over. The week is meant to heighten awareness of conditions that disproportionately affect men, and to encourage those affected to seek treatment for their physical and mental health issues.

While bipolar disorder strikes men and women about equally, there are several differences between the two genders. In previous posts, I’ve covered bipolar disorder in women, bipolar disorder in children, and the differences between children and adults when it comes to the mental illness. It’s high time I covered how bipolar disorder tends to manifest in men.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder and Overall Differences

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, is a severe mental illness where people with the condition cycle through two types of mood episodes. To fully explain bipolar disorder in men, we must first look at the two “poles” of the disease: mania and depression.

Symptoms of mania can include:

  • racing thoughts
  • elevated mood
  • over-excitement
  • a lack of a need to sleep
  • irritability
  • impulsive decisions
  • delusions, occasionally.

Symptoms of depression can include:

People with bipolar disorder can swing between these two states over periods of days, weeks, months, or even years. Rapid cycling occurs when four or more mood episodes happen over the course of a year. Men are only about 1/3 as likely as women to have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.

There are also different forms of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder I involves depression, but also the presence of severe manic episodes, which sometimes require hospitalization. Bipolar disorder II sufferers deal with severe depressive episodes, but only have hypomania, a less intense form of mania.

Men are more likely to have bipolar I disorder than women. The tendency to have a manic episode rather than a depressive episode as the first onset of bipolar disorder is more prevalent in men than women. Conversely, women tend to have depressive episodes first. In addition, these first manic episodes in men are often severe, sometimes leading to prison.

People with bipolar disorder also suffer from mixed states, where they feel symptoms of depression during manic or hypomanic states, or symptoms of mania during depressive episodes. A 2006 study showed that 72% of women presented depressive symptoms during hypomanic episode, while only 42% of men did.

However, these overall differences are all tendencies. Men can have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder 2 with mixed states, and women can have standard-cycling bipolar I with the first onset that was manic.

Denial of a Problem

Unfortunately, many people deny that bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses exist. Men are more likely to be in denial that they have problems, and therefore don’t seek help as often as women.

Women are more likely to be prescribed antidepressants when being treated for bipolar disorder. This is possibly because women more often express their feelings to doctors. Socially, men are encouraged to stuff their emotions. As bipolar disorder is disease that primarily affects emotions, diagnosing bipolar disorder in men who deny there’s a problem can be more difficult.

Similarly, manic states cause men and women to feel euphoria, which can be expressed as extreme confidence. Men are expected to feel more confidence than women in society, so diagnosing a manic state becomes harder.

Violence and Aggression

Mania can include symptoms of irritability, which encourages angry outbursts. Bipolar rage is a real thing.

One of the ways bipolar disorder manifests in men, especially during manic episodes, is through violence and aggression. Violence during manic episodes is rare for bipolar disorder sufferers overall, but is more common in men than women.

This leads men to be imprisoned more often than women. Studies show that men with mental illnesses are 2-4 times more likely to be incarcerated than their representation in the population.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a serious problem with men who have bipolar disorder. At least 72.8% of men with bipolar disorder struggled with some sort of substance abuse problem at some point in their lives, compared to 27.2% of women with the same mental illness.

Men with bipolar disorder are twice as likely than women with the condition to be currently addicted to illegal drugs and/or alcohol, according to a 2004 study published in the journal Bipolar Disorder.

No one knows why men and women with bipolar disorder differ so much when it comes to substance abuse issues. One argument is that men use drugs and alcohol to cope with bipolar mood episodes rather than traditional medication.

Final Thoughts

While bipolar disorder affects men and women at equal rates, there are several differences between the two genders when it comes to this mental illness. Men  with bipolar disorder are more likely to have more severe manic episodes, less likely to seek help, have more violent outbursts than women, and often struggle with substance abuse.

Bipolar disorder is a serious problem, especially in men who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. We must raise awareness of this issue, and encourage the men with bipolar disorder symptoms in our lives to seek treatment.

If you suspect you or a loved one has bipolar disorder, don’t delay. Call your doctor today, and ask for a referral to a competent psychiatrist. He or she can confirm a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and start prescribing medications to help you manage your mood episodes. You deserve help.

For a post on getting a psychiatric evaluation, click here. For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.

I wish you well in your journey.

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