What is Bipolar Disorder?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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32 thoughts on “What is Bipolar Disorder?

  1. I would like to see that statistic about bipolar disorder and alcoholism, because I have never seen that in practice (in psych hospitals or A&D outpatient treatment centers). Many people with mood disorders do have substance abuse issues, but I wouldn’t think it is nearly half, specifically regarding alcoholism. It seemed to me, when I was working, that more people with substance abuse disorders had personality disorders more commonly than mood disorders – plus, coming off substances can cause mood swings, which is of course a temporary condition.

    The other cause of bipolar disorder – and this is mentioned in the literature, as well as in the “adverse side effects” in the packaging of antidepressants – is antidepressants. For some people, use of modern antidepressants can actually cause bipolar disorder (yes, the pharmaceutical companies do say “trigger it in susceptible individuals”, but I have personally treated several people who definitely did not have any bipolar symptoms when treated with older antidepressants such as tricyclic drugs).

    Just wanted to add my 2 cents.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am Bipolar. I drank for 20 years before being correctly diagnosed. The symptoms probably started around 12 years of age. I was put on antidepressants by many different doctors. I was a full blown alcoholic at 17 and did not stop drinking until I was 36. This is when I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. The only time I felt like a “normal” person was when I drank. I would go on spending sprees that eventually left me filing for bankruptcy. I was promiscuous when manic and drinking. Sometimes people would comment that I should cut back on the caffeine when I hadn’t had any. When I was depressed thoughts of suicide filled my head. I drank to make them go away. Sometimes this only gave me the courage to try. There are about 5 simple questions doctors could have asked me over those 20 years and didn’t. I would have been diagnosed sooner. Mental Illness runs rampant in my family. I knew there was something wrong but who was I to tell a doctor they were wrong? I know better now. More than just the Mayo Clinic will have that statistic. Why? Because it’s true. We self-medicate because it’s the hardest illness to diagnose and to live with. Yes, some people go on to live happy productive lives. They are in the minority. On average it takes 10 years to get a correct diagnosis and another 3 years to find the right “cocktail” of medications that will work for you. Some of us never find the right “cocktail” because we went so long undiagnosed. Antidepressants do not cause Bipolar Disorder but they can make it harder to treat if you were only taking certain ones for long periods of time. Sorry to go on but my struggle with this has been a hard one. The stigma, disappointment, anger, sense of loss, can be overwhelming. I have been sober over 6 years now. My mom never got to see me accomplish that. I will never have children like my twin sister does. It’s difficult for me to make friends. I live with my father and I have not dated since I quit drinking. I’m 42 now and sober. l’m not happier or sadder but I’m alive.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah …. the classic “self-medicating”. I don’t have Bipolar, however I have lots of experience trying to fix emotional and mental issues with substances. It never works in the long run.
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your personal story. I subscribed to your blog and checked out a couple of your articles, but it has been a little while since you posted 🙂 You know, I am just teasing you. I hope to “chat” with you again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Victoria B., please accept my humble apologies. I am in the middle of a Manic Episode. This can sometimes make me think and act like I know everything and I climb aboard my soapbox and ramble from there. This isn’t an excuse just an explanation. I speak so little to people that I definitely get carried away. Thank you for what you do.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this. HOW is bipolar diagnosed? You make it sound mysterious and ambiguous. Is there a blood test or other medical test that clearly identifies bipolar disorder? How can you be CERTAIN someone has bipolar disorder vs something else?

    Lisa Taj McCellon


    1. Lisa,

      You make a very astute observation, because diagnosing Bipolar is a bit mysterious and ambiguous. It is really an “opinion” from a psychiatrist rather than a brain scan or blood test. According to the National Instate of Mental Health:

      When getting a diagnosis, a doctor or health care provider should conduct a physical examination, an interview, and lab tests. Currently, bipolar disorder cannot be identified through a blood test or a brain scan, but these tests can help rule out other factors that may contribute to mood problems, such as a stroke, brain tumor, or thyroid condition. If the problems are not caused by other illnesses, your health care provider may conduct a mental health evaluation or provide a referral to a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, who is experienced in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I have Bipolar Type II Rapid Cycling. Definitions change over time as “medical professionals” accumulate more information via studies, how people respond to medication and individual and group therapy.
      Bipolar Disorder is a spectrum illness.
      There are many manifestations. So, one with BD may experience specific symptoms and accompanying illnesses from the spectrum “A-Z” and another will experience another set of symptoms that last for differing amounts of time.
      The golden rule, however, is that in order to be considered BIPOLAR, one must exhibit a fixed list of symptoms for a certain amount of time in order to qualify for the label.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. There is no cure for Bipolar, however there are many effective treatments. People suffering with Bipolar can lead a happy, normal life. Lifestyle changes, therapy, nutrition and medication are all ways that can make positive changes!!


    2. Absolutely not! Sorry if that is the impression given. Lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. I am overly sensitive to the weather, people from my past, gluten, and conflict! I have to learn how to deal with these things in a healthy way if I can at the time. Sometimes it’s possible and sometimes I can’t. I never stop trying though. I still have not used alcohol to cope either. I’m working on not beating myself up when I can’t deal. Celiac Disease has been linked to Bipolar Disorder and I have Celiac that’s why I said gluten. You do what you can. This here helps more than anything!

      Liked by 1 person

    3. I have bipolar disorder and have exhibited symptoms since childhood. It’s a degenerative disease. There’s no cure and it’s a misnomer to claim that “lifestyle changes” can keep it under control indefinitely once a diagnosis has been given. There are periods of remission but never full recovery.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi! Thanks for dropping by and for what you do Victoria, please do keep reiterating that you can have a good, fulfilled life with this condition, you just have to be very self-aware and meet people who see YOU before they see a problem to be solved. Warm wishes, ~ P ~


  5. I am Bipolar 1, diagnosed 12 years ago. When I was trying to be convinced by professionals of it after three consecutive forced judge approved pysch unit stays, it only made me mad to be bothered with it. Although, at that point, I was on a three month manic high thinking everything was fabulous and I was to become someone famous. When I finally came down from it to the depression low of it, there I stood for a year before I felt well enough and stable enough on treatment, to drive and work again. It was like crawling upward out of a sewer smelling, dark, and dangerous tunnel traveling vertical. It was the lowest point in my mental health history. Mind you, I was already diagnosed with OCD. Yes, it is true, we do live normal lives, and will achieve. Sometimes there are limitations that you need to be mindful of. They are real, such as no drinking, drugs, limiting stressors, and identifying your triggers. Figuring out who will love you no matter when you fall and who cannot emotionally be a support due to their lack of understanding. We , (meaning being bipolar) are at a disadvantage navigating through a society or world not set up for us. I have had to find those small parts of the world that I do fit in with and love me for who I am.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Would love if you would write an article about your thoughts on Asperger’s being misdiagnosed as Bipolar Disorder, as happened with me. I can’t be the only one who’s experienced this.

    FYI my blog is now under the website laurietopin.com. Looking forward to seeing you there!


    1. I personally feel the system failed you in such an egregious manner it disgusts me. I am so sorry you had to go through that. I hope you have the right Doctors now with knowledge of Asperger’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Victoria. Firstly, I’d like to thank you for bringing attention to bipolar disorder. It is an oft misunderstood and misdiagnosed problem. I found your post quite informative, but really quite a sanitised view of what living with bipolar is actually like.

    I have bipolar disorder (recently diagnosed – 10 months ago), and have done for my entire life. I’m also currently completing my MA (Psych), which had not been easy with bouts of depression and a fantastic manic episode which almost cost me my marriage, my home, and probably my children. To describe bipolar as “having mood swings” can be quite dangerous for those who don’t have the disorder because it promotes and further perpetuates how people misunderstand the disorder.

    As has been mentioned in another comment here, bipolar occurs on a spectrum, which is why it’s so very difficult to diagnose. It also is comorbid with MANY other disorders, including Aspergers, not just drugs and alcohol (although I do acknowledge that you did not suggest that it only occurred in substance abuse sufferers).

    I have bipolar and panic disorder. Sometimes the anxiety is so high I become agoraphobic too. However, having said that, I have managed to lead a relatively “normal” life. I think what needs to happen in order to eradicate stigma is to be real, open, and honest about how individuals live with, and experience, bipolar. It’s different, and eerily similar, for each of us. We are ordinary people experiencing extraordinary things.

    Sorry for the very lengthy comment!!! I would encourage you and your readers to seek out bipolar bloggers to get a better understanding of what bipolar IS for those of us living with it.


    1. Lola, I genuinely appreciate your comments. To say that my article is highly sanitized, is putting it kindly. I have no personal or medical experience in this field. The information I presented was gathered by reading other blogs and medical sites. Much of my “training” comes from the site Health Line. They have very easy to read articles on just about every health subject. My specialty is drug addiction and alcoholic.

      So you might be asking yourself “Victoria, why the heck are you writing about Bipolar Disorder, when you do not suffer from it?” That is a very good question. My answer: many drug addicts and alcoholics are wrongly diagnosed Bipolar. Others suffer from Bipolar, but they don’t get treated because, the addiction symptoms are masking the underlying problem.

      I hope I treated the disorder with the respect it was due. In any case, I am glad some people, like yourself, offered up personal experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Victoria 😊 Addiction and mental health issues (probably all of them) are very often comorbid, so I understand your interest in bipolar. Drug and alcohol use can trigger mania and/or depression, but if these symptoms are ONLY triggered with drug or alcohol use, the person cannot be diagnosed as bipolar. But sometimes the symptoms of bipolar (mania and/or depression) cause the individual to use alcohol to “escape” the symptoms, and then of course they could have a dual diagnosis of bipolar and substance use disorder.

        All the info you wrote was not inaccurate. It just didn’t really “tell it like it is”, you know? I think most people “get” how destructive alcoholism and drug addiction can be because we get quite a bit of education on it just in general life, but other mental health issues don’t get as much air play, and when it does, it’s always presented inaccurately! As someone who lives with the stigma of bipolar, it can get a bit much.

        But I do thank you for raising awareness! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  8. My husband is bipolar II and the resulting alcoholism was much harder to deal with than getting the right diagnosis and proper meds. Of course he will still tell you he is not an alcoholic and that giving it up was no big deal. I remember the 5 year struggle very differently. Perhaps people are surprised that the percentage is so high because most claim they do not have a drinking problem or do not realize themselves that they do. He never told his doctor he drank even while doing so on medication that was contraindicated.

    Liked by 1 person

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