The Smeared Rainbow: How Bipolar Disorder Can Be a Different Experience for Different People
I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people with bipolar disorder, and one thing that I’ve really noticed is the way that bipolar disorder affects people in very different ways. The difference isn’t simply the difference between types like bipolar I and bipolar II. It also isn’t just the difference between people themselves. Rather, bipolar disorder really differs in the way that it manifests itself in people’s lives.
For this reason, I’ve noticed that it’s best to avoid any general advice about bipolar disorder. Instead, I like to discuss my own experiences about what has worked, and listen to what other people have to say about their own experiences. Of course, I’m not perfect in this, and I tend to let advice slip out, but I am trying.
So, I thought in this article, I’d discuss the different ways in which I’ve seen bipolar disorder affect people, and why I’ve increasingly appreciated just how varied a spectrum bipolar disorder is. Unfortunately, there’s really no way to discuss differences without categorizing those differences; that’s a flaw in language. Bipolar disorder may be something of a rainbow, but it is a smeared rainbow. Still, I find it useful to notice just how varied our experiences can be.
Prominence of Different EpisodesPeople’s mood cycles can be very different. They can vary in what type of episode is most prominent, how severe those episodes are and how quickly they cycle. This can really affect people’s perception of the condition.
For some people, mania seems to be the primary issue. For these people, bipolar disorder often functions as an acute mental illness, with intermittent psychiatric emergencies. People who have frequent mania are often focused on trying to prevent or prepare for the next manic episode.
For other people, depression is the primary issue. Their experience of bipolar disorder is actually a lot like people’s experience of major depressive disorder. This interferes with life not generally as emergencies, but as a daily struggle to get out of bed or to “pull oneself out of the quicksand by one’s own hair.”
For other people, the cycle itself seems to be the main issue. They have a lot of variation in moods, which leads to different types of issues at different times. This leads to a whole host of coping strategies, depending on the situation.
Bipolar disorder, then, can be a quite different experience for different people. None of these is more “real” than the other; they are different overall ways in which bipolar disorder affects people’s lives.
Frequency of Episodes
In addition, there is a huge amount of variability in the rate of the episodes. Some people have episodes that are months long. Other people have as short as days. Then there are people who have ultra-rapid cycling in the transition between somewhat longer episodes (*raises hand*).
I’ve noticed that the frequency of episodes can really affect the general way in which people conceptualize what is going on. In general, the longer the episode, the more a sense of hopelessness or dread can set in of the next episode, especially the depressive ones. Months-long depressions can be especially debilitating.
On the other hand, rapid transitions of episodes can create a general feeling of instability in one’s life. It is difficult to know what the next few weeks will bring, and emotions start to feel especially ephemeral. As a rapid cycler, I’m in this category, and my regular readers may have noticed how much questions about “the real me” are prevalent in my concerns.
Different Types of SymptomsAnother real difference in how bipolar disorder affects people is that people have quite different symptoms, even of the same type of episode. Of course, the biggest difference is probably between the manic episodes of bipolar I and other types of episodes, but what I’ve noticed is that people have very different emotions even in what are “technically” the same type of episode.
For example, hypomania can manifest itself extremely differently. Some people have quite elevated moods and increased energy, that can lead them to be more productive. Other people can simply become very irritable. Many people have some mixture of the two. Needless to say, whether hypomanic episodes are elevated or irritable creates a major difference in how it affects people’s lives.
Similarly, in depression, there seems to be real difference in the levels of anxiety that people experience. Some bipolar people seem to have almost no anxiety at all, while for others, the anxiety is the most debilitating part of the condition. For me personally, I find anxiety the worst aspect of bipolar disorder, but other people have very different experiences.
Different Levels of Functioning
One thing that has really struck me about bipolar disorder is the way in which it really affects people’s functionality in different ways, especially in so far as how it affects our functioning at work. I’ve seen everything from people who seem to function better because they have bipolar disorder, while there are many people who find it impossible to work. There are many people in the middle whose functioning is impeded, but are able to hold down some sort of employment.
This has been a very important difference for me to notice. If I were to assume that bipolar disorder affected everyone in the same way, then it would be very easy to slip into the trap of thinking that bipolar people who don’t work are somehow just lazy.
However, this simply isn’t the case. Because of levels of severity, rapidity, and variability in types of symptoms, some people with bipolar disorder find it very difficult to hold down employment. There should be no shame in being unable to work because of an illness.
What I’ve really learned is that I can cause as many problems for myself by comparing myself to other people with bipolar disorder as I can by comparing myself to people who do not have a mental illness. True, that bipolar person over there may be extremely high functioning, but that doesn’t mean that I need to be. That bipolar person over here may have a lot more anxiety than me, and I can’t simply project my own experiences on to that person.
Bipolar disorder is a “spectrum”, which is a metaphor from rainbows. However, this isn’t quite right. Rather, bipolar disorder is like a bunch of paint swirled together on a canvas, with as many variations as there are possible combinations. Each of us has our own experience of the disorder, and there is always more we can learn about how the condition affects people.