While it’s become mainstream to talk about mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder continues to be misunderstood and even misused as a term by the general public. People regularly use the word “bipolar” to describe a change of opinion or attitude, usually without realizing how damaging it can be for people who have the condition—and for society’s understanding of bipolar disorder as a whole.
There are different types of bipolar disorder, and each has its own unique features:
- Bipolar I: Patients have manic (i.e. “up”) episodes, marked by incredibly high energy and impulse control issues, that last at least seven days. They also experience depressive periods that last at least two weeks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
- Bipolar II: Features depressive episodes, along with hypomanic periods, which are also “up” episodes but are not as severe as full-blown manic episodes.
- Cyclothymic disorder: Marked by hypomanic symptoms lasting for at least two years and periods of depression that go on for at least two years.
- Other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders: This is the diagnosis a mental health professional gives when a person has symptoms of bipolar disorder that don’t match the other three categories.
Basically, bipolar disorder is complicated, and there’s a lot of variation within the condition itself. It’s OK if you don’t know all of that—many people don’t. But learning about what it’s actually like to live with bipolar disorder can go a long way toward breaking down the stigmas surrounding the mental illness. And, if you have bipolar disorder, hearing stories of other people with the condition can make you feel less alone.
Here, four women explain how bipolar disorder impacts their lives—and why it’s not just “mood swings.”
“I have reminders set on my phone so I can remember when to eat.”
Karla Houston, 29, is a stay-at-home mom with bipolar II disorder. “I always tell people that I need to work twice as hard to do things that might seem small to others,” says Houston, who was diagnosed five years ago. “Like many who struggle with this disorder, I may need to manage this closely for the rest of my life,” she says. For Houston, that means micromanaging aspects of her life that other people don’t have to think about. For example, her hypomanic episodes can distract her from eating regularly. “I have reminders set on my phone. Otherwise at times I can go all day without eating and not even notice,” she says.
Houston says she had to “think deeply” before deciding to have children. “I always wanted to be a mother, but I had to accept that I may not be able to handle having as many children as I once desired,” she says. “Being a mom is a task by itself, and coupled with a mental illness, it can feel like the heaviest load to carry.”
Making and maintaining friendships can also be tricky, Houston says. “I won’t be able to always meet up or show up to every event,” she says. “Noise is a trigger for me and when I can’t relieve myself from continuous sensory overloads, I shut down and become incredibly uncomfortable. On the other hand, being excluded from an event based on someone knowing you’re bipolar is a shameful feeling no one likes to encounter.”
Houston says that she still has episodes occasionally, but she manages her condition by taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in bipolar disorder. “After years of going untreated and undiagnosed, and many unsuccessful tries with therapists who I just couldn’t click with, this has [helped me] manage my symptoms,” she says.
Houston talks about her condition on social media and says she wants to help change public perception of bipolar disorder. “Please don’t stigmatize and reduce those with bipolar disorder to being ‘insane,’ ‘crazy,’ or a ‘threat’ simply because you aren’t informed about this particular illness,” she says. “We are capable of making logical decisions and living functional and thriving lives.”
“I’ll deep clean my house, down to scrubbing windowsills.”
Alexandra Pratz, 32, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 16, although she says doctors can’t decide if she has bipolar I or bipolar II. “I’m more manic than depressive but my mania was never to the point where I needed to be in a psychiatric hospital,” she says.
Pratz says she struggled with impulsive behavior during manic episodes in the past and spent “thousands of dollars with no plan to pay it off.” Now that she takes medication and undergoes regular counseling, that is no longer an issue for her. “I’m able to get up, take care of my child, take a shower, and brush my teeth,” she says. “I’m still not really able to control all of my manic and depressive episodes—they’re just not as severe.”
Pratz describes her manic episodes as being “almost hyperactive” which impacts her sleep. She also will have a huge urge to clean during an episode. “I’ll deep clean my house, down to scrubbing windowsills,” she says. “I also get rage—that’s the number one thing I struggle with. There are times where I just collapse on the floor and start crying or I’ll throw a high chair. That’s unfortunately how my frustration plays out.”
But Pratz says she’s “more stable than I was 10 years ago” when her symptoms were at their worst, and that people are often “shocked” when they learn of her bipolar diagnosis. “People have no idea what goes on behind closed doors,” she says. Many also don’t seem to understand what it means to have bipolar disorder. “People think it’s just mood swings,” she says. “But the fact that bipolar disorder affects each person so differently…it’s hard to diagnose and describe.” Pratz urges others to have compassion for people with bipolar disorder. “There’s so much I can’t control, but I’m doing my best.”
“If I’m not properly managing it every day, things can spiral out of control.”
Vania Zuniga, 31, was diagnosed with bipolar I 10 years ago. At the time, she was in college. “I started going out more, drinking more, and not sleeping,” she says. “I was sad and irritable, and had thoughts of wanting to disappear.” Zuniga, who is now a nurse practitioner, was eventually hospitalized for severe depression and, six months afterward, her mom passed away, triggering a manic episode.
“When I was first diagnosed, I wasn’t in therapy and I didn’t manage things the best,” she says. “Now, I go to therapy regularly and take medication. I’ve learned what I need to do to stay on track.” That includes keeping a consistent routine.
“Fitness is a huge part of that—I work out almost every day,” she says. “Then I try to always get sleep, making sure that I go to bed at a reasonable hour so that I wake up feeling refreshed instead of running low.” That can mean leaving a party before it’s over to make sure she gets to bed on time. “For the most part, my friends are very understanding,” she says. “If I have to go home early, nobody fights me to stay longer.”
Still, Zuniga says she’s aware that she needs to stay on top of her condition. “If I’m not properly managing it every day, things can spiral out of control,” she says. Zuniga says she wants other people to know, “It is very possible to have bipolar and live a healthy, happy, and balanced life. It is achievable, but it takes work.”
“There’s nothing I can’t do with this disorder if I set my mind to it.”
Melodi Martí, 26, was diagnosed with bipolar I nearly a year ago. “I was experiencing a manic episode where I thought I was the owner of the universe,” she says. “I thought I was the best in an unhealthy way.”
Martí says her symptoms are now “largely managed” thanks to therapy, medications, and journaling, which she says helps her “put things in perspective.” As a result, she says, “I believe my mood has been more stable.”
But the performing artist says her condition still impacts many areas of her life. As a whole, Martí says bipolar disorder “makes me anxious to the point where feeling anxious is all that I think about.” Bipolar disorder has also impacted her career and friendships. She’s currently not working so that she can focus on her mental health. Martí says that it’s also “difficult to connect” with friends, “knowing that a lot of them have their lives put together, while I’m coping with bipolar.”
Martí says she wants people to know that bipolar disorder is real. “It’s not a made-up disorder,” she says. But, she also points this out: “There’s nothing I can’t do with this disorder if I set my mind to it.”
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