Note from the author: While we don’t often talk about misdiagnoses in mental health, they’re actually incredibly common. As of 2018, I’ve learned that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, rather than a mood disorder, as I shared in this blog. I still believe the information here is valuable, though, and I hope that you’ll still find it helpful.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager, I was surprised. Why? Because everything that society had led me to believe about this disorder had convinced me that I couldn’t possibly have it.
I was young! I had straight A’s in school! I wasn’t scary, or violent, or unhinged. I wasn’t like “those people.”
And yet, when my doctor explained to me the reasons for her diagnosis, it all started to make sense.
Bipolar disorder, simply defined, is a mood disorder. It is marked by distinct periods of extreme euphoria and energy (mania), as well as episodes of deep, prolonged sadness or hopelessness (depression).
And when I thought about the textbook definition, it became pretty clear that I could be the poster child for bipolar.
The stigma that surrounds bipolar disorder leads people to draw some uninformed, hurtful conclusions. These myths perpetuate a culture that shames people with the disorder and prevents them from seeking help.
It was those same myths that had convinced me that I could not have the disorder and discouraged me from asking for the help that I desperately needed.
In the interest of creating a culture that is more welcoming of neurodiversity, we need to examine some of those unchecked ideas about bipolar disorder and the people who live with it.
Let’s tackle some of the prevalent myths.
Myth 1. If You’re Really Moody, You’re Probably Bipolar
The mood episodes that happen with bipolar far exceed your normal ups and downs.
To warrant a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the symptoms must be a clear departure from someone’s typical reality or baseline in severity, length of time, and impairment of day-to-day functioning.
The disorder impacts more than just mood, too.
For example, it can impact someone’s behavior, their ability to keep up with responsibilities and daily tasks, and even their will to live.
People with bipolar disorder can (but do not always) experience psychosis, delusions, and engage in risky behaviors that they would otherwise not pursue.
The complete upheaval I experienced from feeling severely depressed and agitated for an entire year of my life was more than just a mood swing. It was a medical crisis.
When we suggest that bipolar disorder is as simple as being “moody,” we trivialize the real struggle that people who have the disorder go through. We should never undermine the seriousness of bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness.
Myth 2. People with Bipolar Disorder Are Very Violent and Create A Lot of Problems for Society
Well, so far, my greatest offense has been a parking ticket.
The reality is, folks with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. People with a severe mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than the general population.
Yet when a crime is committed and that person happens to have bipolar disorder, mainstream media focuses an awful lot on it. This gives the false impression that bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are the cause of violence in our society.
Untreated mental illnesses can certainly wreak havoc on a person’s life, but to say that every single person with bipolar disorder is violent and a potential criminal is a sweeping generalization that has no factual basis.
Myth 3. You Aren’t Actually Bipolar Unless You’re Completely Dysfunctional
When I revealed my diagnosis to people in my life, many of them were shocked. They had always seen me as high functioning, and this directly contradicted their idea of what someone with bipolar looks like.
The reality is, many people with bipolar disorder find ways to cope or hide their symptoms. Some of the manic and hypomanic symptoms can even masquerade as someone being functional, even highly functional.
Though impaired functioning can be a major red flag, it’s not present in every single person with bipolar disorder.
I was able to show up for work, and I was able to make it to class most days — but the amount of distress that I experienced led to life-threatening levels of suicidality and depression. I was functional, but I definitely still had bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is not like a garment you wear, readily visible and perceivable — oftentimes, we work hard to hide it altogether. Remember that just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.
Myth 4. Mania Is a Relief for People with Bipolar Disorder – It’s A Lot of Fun
I’ve heard this a lot. But if it were fun or pleasurable, it wouldn’t be part of a disorder.
For me, mania felt like being in the backseat of my own life, while the worst driver you can imagine is driving recklessly with no consideration of what the consequences could be — it felt like a complete lack of control and no sense of harm.
Manic episodes are anything but fun for most – they can be destructive.
The impulsivity associated with mania can lead to decisions that can ruin someone’s financial, emotional, or physical security. It can lead to a serious break from reality, as well as impaired judgment.
It’s important not to trivialize something that can be so traumatic for someone, especially when you have no idea what this person may have been through.
Myth 5. Only Certain Kinds of People Are Bipolar
There is no singular “type” of person who has bipolar disorder. It can be found anywhere, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, location, age, and so on.
I remember the first time I wrote a blog entry about having bipolar disorder. I received an e-mail from a reader who was also transgender and bipolar, and they said to me, “I had no idea there were other people out there like me.”
The idea that only a certain kind of person has bipolar is isolating — it convinces us that we’re the only ones.
Community is an essential part of healing, but we’ll never be able to find our community if we continue to push this idea that there is only one kind of person with bipolar.
I’m a transgender and pansexual person with bipolar disorder. And I can assure you, I’m not the only one. And neither are you.
Myth 6. People with Bipolar Disorder Are All Psychotic
Some severe cases of bipolar disorder do involve psychotic symptoms. But bipolar disorder describes a vast spectrum of experiences, symptoms, and struggles.
No two people with bipolar disorder will experience it in the exact same way.
This myth feeds into the stigma of what it means to be “crazy”— that people with these illnesses are lost causes, have no grip on reality, or should be feared.
We aren’t all psychotic – but even if we were, that doesn’t make us any less worthy of dignity, respect, and compassion.
Reducing a person to their disorder or symptoms, and writing them off as “crazy,” denies us our personhood.
Equating us with our disorder ultimately erases us as people and instead defines us by our disorder – disorders which vary widely and are by no means an accurate way to predict our behavior or, more importantly, know who we are as people.
And this dehumanization directly corresponds with the violence, discrimination, and oppression that people with bipolar and other illnesses battle each and every day.
Myth 7. You Will Never Be Stable If You Have This Disorder
Folks with bipolar disorder can often experience periods of relative stability between depressive and manic episodes.
Additionally, plenty of people with the disorder are able to achieve stability through some combination of therapy, exercise, psychotropic medications, diet, consistent sleep schedules, spiritual practices, and other holistic, non-Western healing methods.
In other words, stability isn’t something that we’ve never experienced – and assuming we are constantly unstable is pretty insulting.
Myth 8. If You Have Bipolar Disorder, You Can’t Be Trusted to Make Rational Decisions
Having bipolar disorder does not automatically mean your ability to reason and be a logical person has disappeared. It also does not mean that you have no control over your actions and no self-awareness.
Simply knowing someone has a disorder is not an accurate way to anticipate how that person will behave, how they can handle different situations, and again, who they are as a person.
Not to mention, you have no idea what coping methods they have established or what kind of treatment they’ve sought.
It’s true, you might not want me to drive a car when I’m manic. You also might not want your star basketball player out on the court when they’ve sustained a serious injury.
However, making calls about ability requires that you have knowledge about the extent to which a medical condition impacts someone’s ability to participate in something and for how long.
You can’t make that kind of call with a quick glance or a snap judgment. These judgments are especially difficult when an illness like bipolar disorder is often invisible.
Unless you’re their doctor, it isn’t your call to determine how competent someone is. It’s unfair to make assumptions about someone on the basis of a diagnosis that may or may not be a significant part of their everyday experience.
Bipolar is one facet of a complex human being, and the severity of our symptoms and the kinds of symptoms that we have all vary widely.
To not trust someone on the basis of an illness, without even knowing the way that it impacts their life, is discriminatory.
Myth 9. People with Bipolar Disorder Cannot Have Loving Relationships and Shouldn’t Reproduce
Whoops. You should tell that to my fiancé.
It’s true that bipolar disorder can impact relationships. But the impact is different for everyone, and many people are able to find coping methods that allow them to have very fulfilling relationships.
There are many things that can make or break a relationship, and bipolar disorder is just one factor.
As for not reproducing, there is always a risk involved when having children — it’s a game of genetic roulette, and seldom do we emerge as perfect beings, whether our parents had an illness or not.
There are plenty of neurotypical people who turn out to be terrible parents, and plenty of people with bipolar disorder who turn out to be extraordinary parents.
And if you’re truly concerned about the wellbeing of children who have parents with a mental illness, rather than restricting the reproductive rights of those parents, you should be advocating for resources and treatment, so that parents and children alike can get the help that they need to live their very best lives.
Myth 10. People with Bipolar Disorder Cannot Be Successful
Absolutely, positively, 100% false. There’s actually an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to famous people who have bipolar disorder.
This is maybe the most dangerous myth of all because it leads so many people with bipolar to feel hopeless, as if their lives will not amount to anything. When I was first diagnosed, I was terrified — it felt like I was being told I was doomed to fail.
But the reality is, many people with this disorder have gone on to lead incredible lives.
They’ve been educators, actors, scientists, humanitarians, artists, activists, and so much more.
It is a struggle, to be sure, and a painful one at times. There are obstacles along the way, but there are also resources, communities, and advocates (like myself!) who exist to help others with this disorder succeed.
For me, it took years to get to a healthy place and required a wide network of support and resources that I was lucky enough to find, but I did eventually get there.
I can say now that I’m living a life that many would describe as “successful,” but more importantly, I’m living a life that makes me unbelievably happy.
If we’re going to talk about people with bipolar disorder, instead of perpetuating the stigma and pushing us to the margins, we should be talking about how to make happiness a possibility for everyone.
It starts with conversations like these, and it starts with people like you and me.
Sam Dylan Finch a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is queer writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his hella queer and very awesome blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch.