In-Depth: Living with Bipolar Disorder
It’s common for individuals who’ve been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder to reject the diagnosis, feeling overwhelmed at the thought of having an illness. Some even wait it out, struggling with several episodes before they pursue treatment.
However, an “accurate diagnosis is a positive first step,” said Noreen Reilly-Harrington, Ph.D, clinical psychologist at the Harvard Bipolar Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of Managing Bipolar Disorder: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach Workbook.
Bipolar disorder changes the course of your life, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do great things, said Holly Swartz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.
With a combination of medication, psychotherapy and self-management strategies, individuals with bipolar disorder can lead productive, successful lives. Here’s how.
Common Misconceptions about Bipolar Disorder
In addition to the unwarranted stigma that surrounds bipolar disorder, there are many misconceptions about its symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. These are several prevailing myths:
- Individuals cause their disorder. Bipolar disorder is caused by a complex interplay of genetic, biological and environmental factors.
- You can will yourself out of mood swings. Left untreated, bipolar disorder can wreak havoc on a person’s life. It requires both medical treatment and psychotherapy.
- You’ll never be normal. “Many patients in the beginning feel like they won’t be able to accomplish their goals, that bipolar will prevent them from getting married or getting the job of their dreams,” Reilly-Harrington said. She adds that though your life might require certain changes, you can pursue your dreams. For instance, her student patients might take fewer classes every semester and take longer to graduate, but they still achieve a college degree.
- Bipolar is easy to diagnose. “It’s often very difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder based on an initial visit, even a prolonged one,” said Elizabeth Brondolo, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist specializing in bipolar disorder and professor at St. John’s University in New York. This typically occurs because our self-awareness changes with mood.”It can be hard to translate the experiences and moods you have into the symptoms identified in the DSM or other scales,” said Brondolo, who also co-authored Break the Bipolar Cycle: A Day-to-Day Guide to Living with Bipolar Disorder. For instance, what might appear to you as confidence and clever ideas for a new business venture might be a pattern of grandiose thinking and manic behavior. While you’re focused on your business experience, others notice your mood and behavior, Brondolo said. Same with irritability, a symptom that often goes unrecognized: You’re more focused on feeling frustrated than looking inward. Because you might not be a reliable reporter, talk to your loved ones to get objective impressions, Brondolo said.
- Medical treatment is worse than the disorder. Many people perceive medication as worse than the illness. Although some people can experience a bad reaction to certain medication, you don’t get hooked on medication like you would a street drug, said Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D, clinical psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington and author of The Bipolar Workbook: Tools for Controlling Your Mood Swings. In fact, “medication is key for treating bipolar disorder,” said Brondolo.
Telling Others about Your Diagnosis
Having a support system is critical in successfully managing bipolar disorder. But you might be uncertain about who to tell. According to Reilly-Harrington, be very selective. She emphasizes that it shouldn’t feel like a secret, but you should realize that people’s reactions vary widely. Because many people don’t understand the disorder, patients can feel disappointed after disclosing that they have it.
Many patients, though, do have positive experiences. For one of Brondolo’s patients, who worked in a very supportive environment, telling her boss allowed the patient to be herself and do her job more effectively. (Learn about potential accommodations for bipolar patients here.)