What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder (or manic-depression as it was previously termed) has been described as “the roller coaster ride from heaven to hell and back”. Sufferers of this condition experience profound depressive episodes which alternate with periods of extreme mania and elation.

To understand this distressing disorder better, let’s examine the case of John. People who know John only vaguely could be forgiven for thinking he was two different persons—depending on what mood state he was in at the time. John could be a very quiet, thoughtful, and softly-spoken guy, who was caring and respectful of others, and seemed to suffer from both low self-esteem and moderate depression. In general, he was well-liked and respected, and appeared to care deeply for others.

But over any given period of time, John will slide into a manic phase which may last for many months. During that time, John becomes a different person. He is loud and aggressive, and seems to want to pick a fight with anyone foolish enough to take him on. He rarely stops talking and needs little sleep, and completely exhausts those he lives with. Usually cautious with money, the manic side of John will spend recklessly—he once took a round trip from Los Angeles to London and back on a whim, using up much of the family’s much-needed savings in doing so. He was also aggressive on the plane to his fellow travelers, hurling racial slurs at them and proclaiming that the Scots (his ancestral roots) were the world’s superior race.

John also has grandiose schemes that he devotes much time thinking about and implementing when experiencing a manic episode. On one occasion, he became obsessed with recycling and announced to his family and neighbors that no garbage would ever leave his residence and that everything would be recycled. This included the family sewerage. John spent months constructing a series of pipes and sumps in the back garden, until the inevitable finally happened. John came crashing down into a period of deep depression. During such times, John was more easily managed by his family, as he spent most of his time in bed. But with it came a great risk of suicide while John was in this cycle of the disorder.

Annabel also has bipolar disorder. A talented artist, Annabel has exhibited her works at many shows but has long periods of depression which alternate on occasion with manic episodes. Like John, Annabel seems to have two different personas. A part of her is shy, caring and loving, yet unassertive and somewhat depressed and anxious. The other, the manic side, is wildly promiscuous, believes everyone is out to stop her fun, spends far in excess f her income, and is highly aggressive and threatening. Her daughter no longer speaks to her as she finds encounters with her mother too stressful. Due to the severity and unpredictability of their illnesses, neither John nor Annabel can hold down full-time jobs.

In coming articles, we will look at diagnostic criteria, the onset patterns of the disorder, and coping techniques for the sufferer, their family, and friends.

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