Bipolar disorder is an illness, not a quirky personality trait.
( @letstalkaboutmentalhealth / Instagram)
[Editor’s note: the following article contains graphic details on bipolar disorder which may be triggering to some readers.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) provides information on bipolar disorder and depression, offers in-person and online support groups and forums (800-826-3632)
If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.]
I used to think having bipolar disorder meant having rapid mood swings throughout the day, or suddenly being angered by the sound of a pin drop.
I can’t speak for others, but I’ve never experienced this a day in my life.
Before learning that I landed somewhere on the bipolar spectrum five months ago, there were plenty of things I didn’t know. But then, how could I have?
In my traditional Haitian family, mental illness doesn’t exist. Mental states are always chalked up to “That’s just the way they are.”
Seeing a psychiatrist is taboo, therapy is unnecessary and medications are “for crazies”. From a particularly poor family, mental health services might as well be throwing money down the toilet. So, there was no way of knowing if bipolar disorder was hiding somewhere within my family history.
But luckily, I had a concerned mother and the privilege of being able to seek professional help. Things didn’t get better right away, though.
According to Drs. Tanvir Singh and Muhammad Rajput, 69% of people with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed, including myself.
Following a mental health crisis my freshman year of high school, I was misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder.
Days blended together and I couldn’t find enough energy to get out of bed, shower, brush my teeth or even eat. I dropped to 96 pounds. Every time I stood up, it felt like I had bricks tied to my ankles, weighing me down enough to call it a day and go back to bed.
Compliments seemed like sick jokes and my life turned into the world’s darkest comedy. I was mental health’s laughingstock.
I laid in bed for months, practically emaciated, rejecting any hope of getting better.
After four years of not responding to typical antidepressants — another sign of bipolar disorder — my psychiatrist took a leap of faith and prescribed mood stabilizers instead.
Almost instantly, my symptoms began to lift. I was no longer depression’s favorite problem child. I was no longer in a situationship with my brain and body.
It felt like returning to a home I thought I destroyed years ago. Imagine a hateful vessel brimming with new love, still soft and still unused.
I could say I felt brand new but that wouldn’t be accurate. I felt restored, like when your mother stitches up the hole in your jeans and pulls every thread through with love. Not brand new, but better.
So, why did it take us so long to crack the case?
During my diagnostic process, I was asked if I ever had episodes in which I experienced high energy, made impulsive decisions or had unusually grand ideas — otherwise known as mania, the second phase of bipolar disorder.
My response was always a sharp “no.”
That response, coupled with my unknown family history, was enough for us to rule out bipolar.
[TW: the following sentence includes mention of self-injurious behavior that can be triggering to some readers]
Sometimes I’d recklessly spend my entire paycheck in 24 hours, walk around aimlessly in the dead of night whenever I was upset, and hurt myself just for fun.
In other words, I was starting fires in a place that burns down easily.
But I had just attributed this to having an unusual personality. Doesn’t everyone do reckless shit for days on end every once in a while? (I think we already know the answer to that one.)
Not recognizing the true face of bipolar was detrimental to my treatment. Whenever I heard the word “bipolar” being used in day-to-day life, it was rarely in reference to the actual illness. It was in reference to simply being moody.
Now that I know the reality of bipolar disorder and its severity, hearing someone say “My mood changes so fast, I swear I’m bipolar!” could make my ears bleed. Seriously.
No, Rachel, you’re not bipolar. You’re just having a bad day.
The same goes for other severe illnesses that are commonly misunderstood.
Simply being neat does not mean that you have OCD. You may color code your closet or get annoyed when a picture frame is slightly off-center but guess what?
Being tidy isn’t a mental illness! Who would’ve thought?
To those who have the privilege of not having to manage a mental illness, it can be difficult to wrap your head around what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Spreading misinformation is not only useless, but it’s harmful. Had I known what the actual signs of bipolar disorder are, I might have been able to bring it up to my doctor and get help earlier than I did.
By perpetuating the misunderstanding of mental illnesses, you’re harming those who need to understand it the most. Having the correct information and the ability to seek help can not only change lives — it can also save them.
Christelle Pierre is an Online Writer at Rowdy Magazine. When not writing, one can find Christelle holding a YA novel in one hand and an iced coffee in the other. She can be reached on Instagram @x.hristelle