What is Bipolar Disorder?

R. Kayne

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive illness, is a biological brain disorder that results in extreme psychological and emotional mood swings. These mood swings are so severe that, if left untreated, they often become an obstacle to living a normal, happy life. This disorder affects all aspects of a person's life, from family to friendships and work.

Utter hopelessness may be a symptom of bipolar disorder.
Utter hopelessness may be a symptom of bipolar disorder.

While everyone goes through periods of highs and lows, bipolar disorder magnifies and intensifies these ups and downs to an extreme. A person suffering from this condition does not just feel "blue," but utterly hopeless, ineffectual, and non-vital. These feelings of intense depression often lead to suicidal thoughts or an obsession with suicide.

Intense mood swings and emotional instability are common symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Intense mood swings and emotional instability are common symptoms of bipolar disorder.

The manic or "high" end of bipolar also grossly exaggerates reality. Extreme energy and exuberance, visions of grandiosity, and delusions of being all-powerful are common. Though the person might feel empowered, practical dividends are rare. Ideas race through the mind and focus is limited or impossible. The personality is often uncharacteristically verbose, self-aggrandizing, and sexually aggressive or promiscuous in inappropriate situations and circumstances.

People with bipolar disorder may experience irritability, anxiety, and problems with memory.
People with bipolar disorder may experience irritability, anxiety, and problems with memory.

While those close to the sufferer often mistake the lows of bipolar disorder for common depressive episodes, the highs can be more alarming. A person in the throes of a manic mood swing can appear psychotic to the point of potentially being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.

People with bipolar disorder may have difficulties connecting with friends and loved ones.
People with bipolar disorder may have difficulties connecting with friends and loved ones.

Those suffering from bipolar disorder cycle through life from one state to the other. Between the manic and depressive states, there is often a period of normality. For some, the manic mood might be less pronounced than the depressive mood. Time periods for completed cycles also vary, and a cycle might take a week or longer, or someone might experience many cycles within a single day. This is referred to as rapid-cycling.

Medical experts report that bipolar disorder can occur in any age group. Children of parents with the condition who develop it themselves tend to rapid-cycle, sometimes making it difficult to diagnose against the backdrop of other childhood behavioral problems. Fortunately, there are many treatment options for the disorder. Mood stabilizing medications, talk therapy, and other regimens can make the difference between living life on a roller coaster and regaining the ability to be stable and happy. Treatment is ongoing, as the disorder is not cured but managed.

Though scientists don't yet know what causes bipolar disorder, they do recognize that is it passed down in families. A genetic component is likely part of a larger interplay of various factors, as evidence suggests it is not genetic alone. One twin, for example, might have the illness, while the other does not.

Millions of people suffer from bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in the United States, about 1% of the American population is affected. Some famous people who have talked openly about having it are Anna Marie "Patty" Duke, Linda Hamilton, Jean-Claude VanDamme, Kristy McNichol, Dick Cavett and Buzz Aldrin.

Threats or talk of suicide should always be taken seriously. Anyone who suffers from extreme moods or depression should see a medical professional without delay.

An individual who has untreated bipolar disorder may exhibit suicidal tendencies.
An individual who has untreated bipolar disorder may exhibit suicidal tendencies.

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Discussion Comments


So far as I have been able to determine, the 90 percent divorce rate figure was just made up by someone in an article on psychology today. In previous years, I read 60 percent, a slight increase over all marriages, so seeing 90percent was quite a shock to me and I don't believe it (I'm bipolar, still with my spouse and doing well after 12 years).


I live with bipolar 1 disorder, and the last thing I wanted to admit was that I needed to see a psychiatrist. However, the number one thing that has helped me was seeking a psychiatrist and getting put on a medication regimen, coupled, with weekly psychotherapy.

Without reaching out for both options and support groups like DBSA, I would still be driving people crazy during my manic phases and riding the roller coaster of life.

While I am not cured, and can't be to-date, I have the support team to keep me on as a even keel and grounded as possible.


Can someone please, please tell me how to get a loved one suspected of having BP (or something!!) to go to the doctor to be checked? There is definitely something very wrong but he refuses to see it.


In answer to ha4stc's post, you mentioned that your fiancee had told you of a prior marriage that didn't work out which caused him to have a nervous breakdown and undergo some counseling. Maybe he is just afraid of the relationship between you two not working out like the prior one, and he sees himself as maybe going through all that anguish again. The fear of another nervous breakdown. Maybe he's just doing that, subconsciously, as a way to protect himself from getting hurt again...not that you would do that, but he didn't expect that to happen either from his prior marriage, so I think he's probably just afraid. Don't take it personally. He has already told you that he wouldn't hurt you and that he dearly loves you. Maybe he just has some issues he needs to work out for himself, so you could chose to just let him know that you will be there for him, or you could simply walk away. Good luck and best wishes


Having bipolar myself I have read a good bit about it. One thing that warrants mention is that people are not bipolar, just as people with heart disease are not said 'to be' heart disease. We have bipolar, suffer from... etc. To the degree that the illness controls our lives it is an important distinction to us - it does not identify who we are. I have recently read that in couples where one of the party has bipolar the divorce rate is +/- 90%. I am sorry that I cannot reference it as I constantly read about the illness and do not always note the source. I am married 20 years to an extraordinary woman who prior to my diagnosis and medication was on the verge of leaving me. I was diagnosed five years ago. Even with medication I go through cycles that are much less erratic than before. It is still a challenge for her at times, and frankly if she left I would completely understand. That said, my degree of illness is pretty severe. Everyone struggling with BP has variable symptoms, frequency of onset, and manner that it presents. The statistics are weighed against a successful long term relationship, but it can happen. In my opinion it takes a willingness by both parties to accept that it is a mental illness that can be managed, that the couple work together on communication, understanding, and be extraordinarily patient and committed to one another - this is in addition to the work that it takes to maintain and build your relationship to begin with. For the person with BP joining and maintaining a support group puts you on the fast track to better understanding and coping with your illness.


Can a person who is bipolar take medication for this when they are pregnant/ Will it can any negative impact on the fetus?


I think you are right on the money with your assessment, but of course a clinical person would have to ultimately make that diagnosis.


I was supposed to get married in October of this year. My fiancee pursued me from the beginning. At first, I wasn't interested in a relationship. I was extremely reluctant about any relationship. He assured me that he would never hurt me. There were no signs at all that things were not wonderful between us.

All of a sudden, he told me things wouldn't work out at the "drop of a dime". All the way up to this point, everything was great, or so I thought. He says that he dearly loves me but that he knows things couldn't work out. He is really happy one day and seems totally depressed the next. His grandson has bi-polar disorder. He tells me that no one in his family has it. It makes me wonder if he has bi-polar.

He is a true "Drama King" in every aspect of these two words. He doesn't want drama in his life but causes it to be there by his actions. He had mentioned to me earlier in his life after a bad marriage, he had a nervous breakdown and underwent psychiatric counseling.

Can you tell you what you think on this subject because I am very confused. Thank you.

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