A wise man will hear and increase learning,

And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.

Proverbs 1:5


What Is Bipolar Disorder?

            Many people are unaware that there are different variations of the illness.  I will share with you simple generalities that I have learned.  The clinical details for any professional are much more complicated to consider in diagnosis of a patient, so always seek professional advice.  First of all, bipolar of any type is called a mood disorder.

            Bipolar I is often characterized by more manic episodes and behaviors than depression over time.

            Bipolar II is the presence of more depression than mania over time, will not actually have a severe manic episode, but does include low level mania, called hypomania.

            Cyclothymia is chronic and numerous high and low moods.  Shifts in mood are more frequent but less severe.  This includes fluctuating low level mania with low level depression.  This is a pattern over time of at least 2 years. 

            Bipolar NOS (not otherwise specified) is a term I will leave to the professionals.  It basically means a mood disorder that has bipolar characteristics but does not meet all of the clinical criteria for one of the above.

            More detailed diagnostic information on these and all other mental illnesses can be found in the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, the Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders, (4th ed., Text Revision) or the DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000) if you are so inclined to read the clinical jargon.

More Terms to Know

            Hypomania – lower level mania, milder form of mania, same symptoms but less likely to include psychosis or impaired functioning.

            Mixed Episode – both the symptoms of major depression and mania happen during the same day, every day for at least a week.

            Rapid Cycling – four or more mood episodes during a 12 month period.

            Mania – a severe episode lasting a week or more that can include reduced need for sleep or food, grandiose ideas, self-destructive and extreme pleasure-seeking, fast talking, racing thinking, inability to control impulses, easily distracted, inability to sit still, lack of self awareness, poor judgment, inaccurate perception of reality, psychotic religiosity, hallucinations, irritability.       

            Major Depression – severe low mood that can include loss of enjoyment or interest in most things, loss of ability to work, significant weight loss/gain, insomnia/hypersomnia, loss of energy, hopelessness, inability to think or concentrate, thoughts of death/suicide.  I remember reading somewhere that the rates of suicide are greater with bipolar depression than with those who suffer from major depression alone.

Symptoms Are Just Words

            In my stories you see how bipolar disorder has affected my thinking and behavior.  The mind is very sick indeed when not stabilized with medication.  I’ve already talked about how the irrational thinking combined with a complete lack of impulse control leads to addictions. 

            From my perspective, some of the terms used for bipolar symptoms are just words.  To one who has to experience it, it is hell.  For example, racing thoughts does not begin to describe the racing freight trains in my mind that collide and switch tracks all at the same time, all with different topics and thoughts that are unrelated.  Then the pressured speech tries to unload these out of the mind by dumping all the thoughts, one after another.  The problem is, the faster you speak them and dump them, the faster more will come.  The feeling that you will burst if you don’t quickly unload every thought and idea is quite overwhelming.  A manic person can keep these incoherent rants up a long time.

Where does Bipolar Come From?

            The experts tell us that there is most often a hereditary nature to most mental illness, bipolar included.  In my case, someone in four different generations of my family line have had either a type of bipolar, or other mental illness. 

            If the hereditary genetics for the illness are present, then bipolar can be triggered by a stressful life event.  It is also possible for someone to carry the tendency for bipolar and not manifest it if such life stressors do not occur.

Treatment and Support

            I have mentioned my feelings of the importance of medications as well as a support system in the goal of being as stable as possible.  This can look different for every individual.  I encourage that you seek out help and don’t try to struggle with it alone if you are experiencing any mental illness.  Find others who have been through it and gain from their knowledge and experience.

            Continue to seek out the right doctors and counselors until you get the right ones for you.  Some people find that support groups work better for them than individual therapy.  There are organizations that provide more of a community support.  They will have resources, assistance in applying for disability and other services that may help.  Still other organizations provide social activities or help in getting employment. 

            Your local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) office is a good place to start, because they offer so many different programs.  Mostly free services are offered for those with mental illness as well as separate programs for family members of someone with mental illness.  NAMI has a local group in many large cities.  Their website is www.nami.org, and we recommend checking the website pages devoted to NAMI FaithNet.  NAMI’s national toll free information helpline is 800-950-NAMI.  A great deal of information and resources can be found online.  Calling or visiting the office nearest to you will encourage you about the extensive services available in your community.

            Another large organization that will lead you to resources and information is the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, find them online at www.dbsalliance.org.  Their toll free number is 800-826-3632.

            Many other excellent and helpful magazines, books, websites and groups exist.  The two organizations above and their websites will lead you to so much more.  A good amount of information with both of these groups is offered in Spanish.  Once you reach out and see what is available, you will feel encouraged by others who experience what you do, and learn from them.

Some of Our Favorite Books, Magazines, Websites:

- bp magazine, www.bphope.com, 877-575-4673

- Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder, by Fast & Preston

- We Heard the Angels of Madness, A Family Guide to Coping with Manic Depression, by Berger & Berger

- Married to Mania, downloadable book, www.marriedtomania.com, by Elizabeth Atlas

- 100 Questions & AnswersAbout Bipolar Disorder by Albrecht & Herrick

- What Goes Up:  Surviving the Manic Episode of A Loved One, by Judy Eron

- Touched With Fire:  Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison

- Night Falls Fast:  Understanding Suicide, by Kay Redfield Jamison

Video/DVD (available from Netflix and other sources)

Boy Interrupted, HBO Documentary Films by Dana and Hart Perry

Mr. Jones, TriStar Pictures, with Richard Gere, story by Eric Roth

Shadow Voices: Finding Hope in Mental Illness, produced by Mennonite Media for the National Council of Churches, www.shadowvoices.com or www.visionvideo.com

Church & Mental Illness

            As much as I rely on my faith for coping, I know that there are some Christian and non-Christian churches that don’t think people should see a therapist or psychiatrist, or should not take medications.  I have run into such well-meaning but uneducated pastoral counselors, pastors and other church leaders.  These well-meaning people haven’t a clue about how serious mental illness can be and how difficult to manage in the best of situations. 

            My feeling is that you would not tell someone with cancer to just get their act together, or to pray for healing and not seek medical attention.  Yes, prayer is important. However, recommending that church-goers not seek medication or therapy that they need, is very wrong, in my humble opinion.   I have been shunned and asked to leave by pastors when I thought that a church was one place where I would be accepted.  I never did anything strange or violent, they were just afraid of what MIGHT happen when they knew I had bipolar disorder.

            Your connection to your faith can be an important part of coping with any illness, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t find the understanding and support for mental illness in every church.  Just as with the medical professionals or others in your life, keep going until you find what you need.  Be at peace that it’s their difficulty or ignorance with mental illness, not your fault.

Mental Illness is not a Choice

            Bipolar disorder, and other unstable mental illness states of mind are psychotic and horribly irrational.  Impulsive, uncontrollable decisions and unintentional poor judgment combines with a lack of any common sense.  When I am unstable, my brain does not compute consequences, it does not weigh any behaviors.  My brain is like a computer that has crashed because you took an ax to it.  Something may come up on the screen, but it isn’t going to work. 

            No matter how many times someone tells me to get my act together, my brain does not understand what that means.  Come on – why would one choose to drive a car without gas, think they can buy houses, boats, and cars truly thinking they can afford it when there is no money in the bank.  No one would intentionally choose to not sleep, drink or eat for days.

You Can Do This!

            Mental illness, when treated with proper medication and a support system, allows one to have a very normal life.  I personally benefit from God being part of my support system and I highly recommend it.  Society too often equates violence or whacky behavior or homelessness with mental illness.  There are plenty of doctors, lawyers, musicians and other occupations filled with those whom you aren’t aware of who have mental illness and are well managed and quite stable with medications much of the time. 

            Preventive care is so essential with mental illness, but even the best laid plans can go awry when something unexpected or unknown causes the brain to misbehave.  Be honest with yourself, your caregivers and those close to you.  Share how you are feeling with someone.  These people can be the help to watch out for you when you cannot watch out for yourself. 

            Being embarrassed or ashamed will not get you the help that you need.  I know now that I personally need to watch for mania in the spring/summer season like many others with bipolar.  I did not learn this until 2010, talking with my new psychotherapist.  I also must be careful with pain medication changes.  In addition, I require a lot of sleep.  Everyone is different.  If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out.

When wisdom enters your heart,

And knowledge is pleasant to your soul,

Discretion will preserve you;

Understanding will keep you.

To deliver you from the way of evil

Proverbs 2:10-11