I never heard much about bipolar disorder until I started spending time with alcoholics. No wonder since bipolar disorder and alcoholism are often linked together. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to half the people who have bipolar disorder also struggle with alcoholism.
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a serious brain illness. It is also called manic-depression. People with bipolar disorder go through unusual mood changes. Sometimes they feel very happy and “up,” and are much more active than usual. This is called mania. And sometimes people with bipolar disorder feel very sad and “down”. This is called depression. Bipolar disorder can also cause changes in energy and behavior.
Bipolar disorder is not the same as the normal ups and downs most folks go through. Bipolar symptoms are more powerful. People with bipolar disorder can get treatment. With help, they can get better and lead successful lives.
Who develops bipolar disorder?
Anyone can develop bipolar disorder. It often starts in a person’s late teen or early adult years. But children and adults can have bipolar disorder too. The illness usually lasts a lifetime.
What causes bipolar disorder?
The causes of bipolar disorder are not always clear. Several factors may contribute to bipolar disorder, including:
- Genes, because the illness runs in families
- Abnormal brain structure and brain function.
What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Bipolar mood changes are called “mood episodes.” People may have manic episodes, depressive episodes, or “mixed” episodes. A mixed episode has both manic and depressive symptoms. These mood episodes cause symptoms that last a week or two-sometimes longer. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day.
Mood episodes are intense. The feelings are strong and happen along with extreme changes in behavior and energy levels.
People having a manic episode may:
- Feel very “up” “high” or “jumpy”
- Talk really fast about a lot of different things
- Be agitated, irritable, or “touchy”
- Have trouble relaxing or sleeping
- Think they can do a lot of things at once and are more active than usual
- Do risky things, like spend a lot of money or have reckless sex.
People having a depressive episode may:
- Feel very “down”, worried or sad
- Have trouble concentrating
- Forget things a lot
- Lose interest in fun activities
- Feel tired or “slowed down
- Think about death or suicide.
Can bipolar disorder coexist with other problems?
Like I said at the beginning, a person may drink too much or take drugs to deal with mood episodes. This can turn into alcoholism or drug addiction. Some people take a lot of risks, like spending too much money or having reckless sex. These problems can damage lives and hurt relationships. Some people have trouble keeping a job or doing well in school.
Is bipolar disorder easy to diagnose?
No. Some people have bipolar disorder for years before anyone knows. This is because bipolar symptoms may seem like several different problems. Family and friends may not see that a person’s symptoms are part of a bigger problem. A doctor may think the person has a different illness, like schizophrenia or depression.
Also, people with bipolar disorder often have other health problems. This may make it hard for doctors to see the bipolar disorder. Examples of other illnesses include substance abuse, anxiety disorders, thyroid disease, and heart disease.
How is bipolar disorder treated?
Right now, there is no cure for bipolar disorder. But treatment can help control symptoms. Most people can get help for mood changes and behavior problems. Treatment works best when it is ongoing, instead of on and off.
1. Medication. Different types of medication can help. People respond to medications in different ways, so the type of medication depends on the patient. Sometimes a person needs to try different medications to see which are best.
2. Therapy. Different kinds of psychotherapy, or “talk” therapy, can help people with bipolar disorder. Therapy can help them change their behavior and manage their lives. It can also help patients get along better with family and friends. Sometimes therapy includes family members.
3. Other Treatments. Some people do not get better with medication and therapy. These people may try things acupuncture diet and exercise or even “electroconvulsive therapy,” or ECT.
Sometimes people take herbal and natural supplements, such as St. John’s wort or omega-3 fatty acids. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. Scientists aren’t sure how these products affect people with bipolar disorder.
Where do I go for help?
If you’re not sure where to get help, start with your family doctor. Another great place for information is the SAMHSA website. Like most things, the most important part, is admitting you have a problem and seeking help. You don’t have to feel alone.