Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental health condition that impacts a person’s mood. It’s a very serious disorder that can have a huge impact on a person’s ability to handle even basic activities, and yet, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that the condition is difficult to identify in the early stages. Often, the symptoms a person feels can be explained away, and some people might even be able to hide their distress from the people they love. As a result, it’s not uncommon for people to spend years or even decades engaged in a battle against bipolar disorder, and they might even turn to addictive drugs as they look for solutions. Thankfully, astute family members can spot the signs, and when they do, treatment providers can develop intensive programs that could help.
Intense moods characterize bipolar disorder, but the way in which the condition manifests can be quite different in different people. In fact, there are four different types of bipolar disorder that experts recognize, and each separate subtype has its own specific symptoms to contend with.
Those who have bipolar I disorder have what some might claim is the classic form of the disease. These people have intense periods of creativity and energy in which they might not need to sleep, eat or rest. They may seem jumpy and twitchy, able to shift a conversation from one topic to another and back again, while engaging in reckless behavior, including:
- Spending huge amounts of money
- Driving too fast
- Sharing intimate information on social media
- Buying stocks and bonds without researching the activity
- Quitting or starting jobs
- Having sex with strangers
These episodes of mania are contrasted with depressive episodes in which people feel so low and sad that they simply can’t get out of bed and face the day. They may consider suicide, or they may feel as though they’re worthless, hopeless or helpless. Making decisions is difficult, and planning for the future often seems futile for people in the depths of depression.
People with bipolar I disorder may have normal or balanced moods in the midst of these extremes, but they may not be able to control the shift from one spot to another. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance suggests that one or two cycles like this per year is common, and that mania typically takes place in the spring or fall, when the seasons change.
While depths of lows and the highest of highs can be intensely disturbing, even more subtle shifts can put a person’s life in chaos. Those who have bipolar II disorder don’t tend to have these huge swings and intense shifts, but they do have subtle periods of happiness that are followed by a serious shift to depression. Their highs may not be extreme, but their lows are certainly difficult to deal with. Similarly, some people have a form of bipolar disorder known as cyclothymia, in which they shift from mild mania to mild depression. Their symptoms aren’t severe enough to merit a full-blown diagnosis of bipolar I disorder, but the feelings they experience are more powerful than those felt by people who have strong mental health.
Some people have some symptoms of these disorders, but their problems are somewhat unique, and they don’t allow the person to fit into one diagnostic category. They may not have enough manic symptoms, for example, or their problems may be new to them. They may not shift very often, or they may not have enough symptoms of depression. These people are still struggling, but their struggles are unique. People like this might be given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS).
Living with Bipolar Disorder
The National Institutes of Health estimates that six million adult Americans have some form of bipolar disorder, and while all of these people may have their own challenges and their own stories to tell, most people who have untreated forms of the disease live lives that most people would consider difficult or uncomfortable. An episode of mania can be so very intense that people are simply incapable of handling basic details like:
- Going to work
- Caring for children
They might be unable to concentrate, flitting from one half-finished project to another. They might also be delusional, believing that they’re famous or that they’re wealthier than they are. Some people might feel fabulous during this time, but some people feel anxious and keyed up, unable to relax or to quiet down. When the emotions wear off, they’re asked to deal with the consequences of their behavior, and some might even be asked to explain why they acted in such a reckless manner. These might be questions that are difficult, or even impossible, to answer.
The depression of bipolar disorder can be similarly crippling, and it can last for months on end. People might just be unable to improve, even as the people around them tell them to get up and do something about their mood. Nothing seems to help, and no changes seem to make any difference at all.
Some forms of bipolar disorder allow people to shift from one mood to another in just minutes, cycling from happy to sad again multiple times each day. People like this might even have mixed episodes in which they feel both mania and depression at the same time. They may have no control over their feelings at all, during these episodes, and they may be terrified about what they might do.
Some people become so bereft about living with the disorder that they choose to take their own lives, but a study in JAMA Psychiatry found that suicide wasn’t the only health risk that could impact a person with bipolar disorder. Here, researchers found that the disorder could shorten life, and the increased risk of an early death came from a variety of sources, including:
- Heart disease
Some people even turn to addictive drugs like alcohol or heroin, as these substances seem to provide a person with the ability to amend, if not control, their emotional responses. When they feel too high, they can take a drug to push them back down to normalcy. When they feel low, they can take a drug to boost their energy level. It seems reasonable, but unfortunately, it’s also a dangerous strategy. Addictive drugs can erode portions of the brain that deal with impulse control and mood regulation, which might make mood swings more common and more intense.
For people with bipolar disorder, finding the right treatment program is key to long-term success. For example, in a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers found that people who were satisfied with their treatment provider were more positive about their disorder, and they felt more confident about their ability to handle the disease. Having the right team can make all the difference in the world in terms of confidence and success.
In a formal program for bipolar disorder, experts can provide medications that can soothe the imbalances in the brain that tend to lead to intense moods, and while people with this condition might need to take their medications for the rest of life, doing so could keep mood shifts from coming back. People with the disorder might also benefit from learning more about how to develop a sober life. They might learn about the importance of a routine sleep schedule and good nutrition, for example, and they might learn how to avoid the people, places and things that tend to cause an intense mood to appear. Some programs even put people with bipolar disorder into support groups, so they can learn from their peers and develop intense skills that can serve them in the years that follow.
Even with the best of therapy, some people will lapse back into either mania or depression, according to a study in The American Journal of Psychiatry. Here, researchers found that 73 percent of clients relapsed in the five years that followed treatment. That’s why follow-up care is so very important, as people might need help during the rest of life in order to really keep the condition under control. It’s chronic, so it never goes away, but therapy that progresses for the rest of life can allow people to seize on a relapse and stop it before the damage is too severe.
But all of this work must begin with sobriety. Therapy is challenging, and it involves patience and learning. People who are impaired by drugs often don’t have the ability to participate in a program like this, even though they might want to, as a portion of their attention is always focused on obtaining or using drugs. Only when they’re sober are they able to really focus in therapy and learn the important lessons that can keep them safe in the years that follow.
A program like ours at Black Bear Lodge might be the right place to start, for people with bipolar disorder and addiction. We can help people to get sober in a safe environment, and we can begin to lay the groundwork that will give people control over their mental illness and their addiction in the years that follow. When our work is done, we can provide a client’s doctor with intensive notes about the therapies provided and the progress made, so the maintenance work that makes up bipolar disorder control can continue when the client is living at home once more. We have helped many clients get started, and we’d like to help you too. Please call to find out more.