“Bipolar Disorder” or Typical Human Behavior?

I’ve been seeing a recurring theme lately.

I told someone I’ve known for a while (but who has somehow escaped the knowledge of what has really gone down the last year or two) that I have bipolar disorder.

She asked me, “ok, so what does that mean?”

“Mood swings,” I said, “overreactions to things, stuff like that.”

I may have been much too general because her response made me pause for a moment,

“Isn’t that everyone?”

Rather than go on a long rant trying to explain further, I laughed.

Likewise, I was recently at my third visit with my new therapist and she was analyzing one of the horrible days I had last week with an abrupt mixed manic episode at work where I had to leave early.

“You were in a bad mood because you were still sick, which anyone can do,” she started, “you were frustrated with your boss about how you were being treated, you were anxious about coming back to work after having been sick for the last few days,” she grinned wildly, “are any of these things that anyone else (bipolar diagnosis aside) might experience?”

Frankly, this long speech pissed me off because, though I hope to have a therapist who can tell it like it is, I’d rather them do it in a nurturing, enlightening way rather than a smarmy, shit-eating-grin sort of way. After taking so long to come to terms with the notion of having bipolar disorder, having your “support person” question it really drives me bananas. 

“Which part,” I asked, “of the following is also typical of ‘normal’ human behavior? You forget, I do not presume to know what is typical and what isn’t, as the only experience I have to base my conclusions on is my own. But having paranoia that leaves one simply terrified of their co-workers, is that typical? How about having the overwhelming urge to attack and/or destroy the people around me? Maybe overwhelming feelings of suicidally that crop up in that situation -surely that is ‘normal’ as well?”

I’ve been thinking about this the last few days and it makes me think about what a few people have said to me, regarding jumping to the conclusion after receiving a diagnosis that any subsequent activity is linked to that diagnosis.

For example, someone with bipolar disorder grieving over a loss assuming they are having a depressive episode associated with bipolar disorder.

Or, (and I expect this is what that therapist meant to say, though she did so in a terrible way) becoming legitimately angry about something but calling it a manic episode.

At first, part of me got concerned that this is something I might be doing too. Am I attributing the regular moods of life with bipolar disorder? Do I lump all of my emotions into one category?

The conclusion I came to is no.

The whole concept behind bipolar disorder (as I see it anyway) is that people experience a wide range of emotions. Up to a point, these emotions are totally normal, everyday occurrences for people. Becoming furious is not singularly a bipolar experience.

But, there is a point where these emotions can do a number of different things that are what relate them to the notion of bipolar disorder.

1. The emotion could be a response to something that has happened (like a normal reaction) but is not a proportional response -either in magnitude or duration. 

i.e, wanting to kill the co-worker who borrowed your pen without asking, or being depressed for a week because you know you bought stamps but can’t find them in your house.

2. The emotion could be occurring independently of outside events. 

i.e, walking down the street and then bursting into tears for no apparent reason.

3. The emotional response could include abnormal sorts of elements.

i.e, delusions, hallucinations, suicidally, homicidality, etc.

When sitting down and looking at it, these were the things that stood out to me as defining factors of what makes my emotional responses different than those of (what I’ve heard) is the typical human response.

The fact that I have these sorts of responses doesn’t mean I am somehow being controlled by something called bipolar disorder. In fact, the reality is the opposite. Bipolar disorder is merely a description of what I have already been experiencing.

And, unfortunately for me, these incidences happen fairly frequently.

I feel pretty confident that I am able to discern an “episode” (meaning, an occurrence of one or more of those elements -I don’t usually require a specific duration of my symptoms to personally identify these elements, even though I recognize that most doctors do) after the amount of mood charting I’ve been doing, and I find it pretty straightforward when there is a big difference between feeling bummed out about something and feeling depressed and suicidal.

I think it can be common, though, for people with bipolar disorder to either begin tagging all negative emotion as bipolar disorder and expecting that to be something that can be simply eradicated. It can be easy for me, sometimes, to forget that it is normal to feel a bit of misery every once in a while, or loneliness, or anger. As long as it isn’t the killer sort, I consider it a welcome change.

7 responses to ““Bipolar Disorder” or Typical Human Behavior?

  1. Good post. This is something I’ve been struggling with myself, not blaming everything on the Bipolar & recognizing when some things are legitimate normal emotions. And I totally agree about smug therapists & people who chalk everything they don’t like up to the disease.

  2. Yes! Love this post!

    I agree that we can tell the difference between an episode and a normal, emotional reaction. Although I still doubt myself quite often when I can’t tell the difference…but most of the time we can tell when we are flipping out more than necessary.

    Before my diagnosis, every single time my husband (boyfriend, at the time) and I would have a fight, I thought, “Oh, this is it! This is the end. We are over. He will kick me out. I need to find a place to live. What will I do?! Where will I go!?” All the while, he is at work cooling off and moving on to other things. I always made it a bigger deal than it was. Always. I hated that about myself.

    Bipolar people…we get STUCK. We dwell. It is literally a brain disorder where these chemicals cannot be called off when the threat/danger has passed. Our brains lack that capability. Not always…but often. We overreact to things and can’t let them go. And sometimes our brains release those “scared/frightened/paranoid/hyperaware” chemical for absolutely no reason at all.

    But that is a super long explanation to give to someone! lol I dunno…I just really love that I have finally found a place where I can read about others who have the same thoughts. =)

    Thanks for sharing yours!

  3. I understand feeling this way. I think the thing that helped me realize that I truly had Bipolar disorder was to look back over the last several years and see all of extreme up and down flow. Bouts of depression and then periods of rage or risky behavior. Of course I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. I am not sure about bipolar I I think that is rapid cycling.But after all that time of having it, in the last year or so, I haven’t had any of the symptoms anymore.

  4. Great post. I’m fairly newly diagnosed and still struggling a bit with recognizing what is an appropriate (proportional?) response to whatever stimuli pushes my buttons. Sometimes it’s obviously over-the-top, but sometimes it’s subtle. I really want to be conscious of how I view things. I certainly don’t want to become one of those people who blame everything on their disorder…

  5. Excellent. I agree with the previous comment, that this is something that I question regularly myself.

  6. This is such a great post – so well explained.
    I also struggle with these kinds of comments from others (esp. professionals) and find them really invalidating.. because it’s not “just”, it’s something more… it’s not just sadness, it’s depression.. it’s not just a diet or body dissatisfaction, it’s an eating disorder, etc.
    But I think you raise a good point – it’s easy to begin to categorise all personal negative human experience into whichever mental illness we may be living with. It’s really good that you’re aware of this & willing to accept some of the pain and difficulty as part of “normal” life. I think by doing so results in less emotional suffering for a person.

  7. I have been reading The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide by David J. Miklowitz, Phd. It’s been very helpful to me for several reasons, but one was that it had some questions to distinguish bipolar from mood swings. Two of the questions mentioned the duration of a mood swing as bipolar lasts longer—one asked if it stays for days at a time with little relief or if it changes when something good happens. Another asks if mood changes go along with noticeable changes in thinking, perceiving, sleeping and energy/activity levels. People noticing and commenting on your mood shifts is another one. I have been told I was “too sensitive” since I was a little girl. I’m now 43 and still hear this from my mother.

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