What is Bipolar?

Owen Gower  (4)SM (cropped)
29-03-2019

So March 30th is World Bipolar Day. Come on, what IS Bipolar? What have you always wanted to know but been afraid to ask?

Well, it's not as scary as you might think, but it is very serious. If you want proper medical details start at www.bipolaruk.org. If you want an overview from someone who has Bipolar (these are my own experiences), then read on...

How does Bipolar affect your mental health?
Bipolar disorder affects your mental health but is in actuality a mental illness. Something manageable, but not curable, that sufferers have to live with for the rest of their lives and which qualifies as a disability under UK law - something to note due to the employment protections available under legislation. No blue parking badge though, sorry…

Isn’t Bipolar just a fancy name for manic depression?
While Bipolar is, as it sounds, a person careering between two different ends of the spectrum, it's not just a mood swing or the ups and downs we all feel. Depression and manic episodes feature, but it's useful to imagine Bipolar as a sine waveform with high peaks and deep lows.
That's called Bipolar 1 (yes that's right there are different types of Bipolar…)

What’s Bipolar 2???
I’m glad you asked. Bipolar 2 is like Bipolar 1, but tends more towards the lows and the highs aren't as high. In fact, with Bipolar 2 the highs come in the form of Hypomania (more on that below). That's the type I have and part of the reason I got a misdiagnosis of depression, but full-blown mania can still occur and can last as long, and can be just as damaging.
Then there's cyclothymia and Rapid Cycling (nothing to do with middle-aged men in lycra!) The basic message here is everyone's different so don’t prejudge. It can take years of counselling to get to know the full extent of individual conditions. 

What do the downs look like?
Tired, lethargic, shameful, can't eat, or overeating, demotivated, feeling like a burden, suicidal…

Bummer. What do the ups look like?
Reckless, insensitive, no regard for personal safety, all over the place, no sleep required, no batteries needed, delusions of grandeur, on top of the world, what do you mean I'm speaking fast I always speak this fast - catch up or get out of my way, let's do this, bored now let's do this instead! 

What does it feel like?
Imagine being on top of everything without a care for yourself or anyone else and just waiting for the crash. Knowing the inevitability of what will come next is a painful thing. It can be very embarrassing too. Why did I do that, why did I say that to people, that's not me… Why did I think that was a good idea? Oh god, what did I do?
In fact, imagine your most embarrassing night of heavy drinking then stretch it out to last 3 months. How would you feel waking up after that?
Then there are the other things that people don’t like to mention. The "Frivolous Spending". Money doesn't matter when you're on top, so spend it all while you're up here - we're here for today, not tomorrow! Debt can be a damaging result. 

Hypomania
Hypomania on the other hand has been a big part of my life. This is the mania that happens at a level slightly below the full-on leaping out of cars manic. It usually follows and precedes a depressive episode. 
Hypomania is talking quickly, but managing to hold the patience for others to catch up. It's a state which requires very little sleep, but that time is put to use on projects, or developing ideas, a positive outlet if there's one around. Hypomania I read once described as "the good mania", but that's just the surface; it's shattering going at that speed all the time and burnout, followed by depression, isn’t far away. 

Do you miss it?
People used to enjoy me at this speed and I enjoyed it myself, but this is usually just the gateway to full blown mania and nothing is worth becoming like that. 

What’s it like being on the drugs?
Medicated and managed it's all a different story. If I start to tip one way or the other it's not as extreme and not as long lasting. Depression is real and present but not as intense. Basically, I can cope with it. 

How long will you have to take them? 
I will be on medication for the rest of my life - medication which I'm acutely physically addicted to; skipping even one dose of pills leaves me with the shakes, the sweats, no sleep and nausea in only a matter of hours.
Side effects include weight gain, high blood pressure and which may eventually lead to me developing type 2 diabetes. But those are risks I can accept, especially looking back on the destruction unchecked Bipolar caused. I have to go for a 6 month check-up and blood tests to monitor these.

What I can tell you, definitively, two years down the line, is that living, working and being successful with Bipolar is entirely possible. The two extremes of Bipolar can be managed with care and hard work, good support and good systems, despite sometimes goading each other into existence.

I hope reading this has given you a new perspective on the Bipolar condition and those who carry it around with them. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

So - did you hear the one about the Bipolar surveyor…?

He looked after himself properly, did his job well and got on fine. Thanks for asking!

Owen Gower MRICS is a facilities management professional working for Sheffield Hallam University. He was the 2014 winner of the RICS Matrics Young Surveyor of the Year (FM category). He is one of LionHeart’s mental health ambassadors.

  • You can read Owen’s blog on being diagnosed with Bipolar and his experiences of going back to work here

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