A woman with bipolar disorder sitting on a bolder in a forest, leaning her head against her knees

What Bipolar Disorder Actually Is, Since It's More Than Preconceived Moodiness

by Sophia Wu

I remember I was once at a party when an acquaintance casually revealed to me that he was bipolar.

My internal reaction was not the kindest, and I am ashamed to admit that I immediately labeled him as a psycho, thinking he could “go crazy” at any moment.

I was afraid of him, but what I didn’t know at the time was that I, too, would struggle with the same disorder exactly one year later.

It is safe to say that mental illness has a strong stigma in our culture and bipolar disorder is no exception.

People with depression and anxiety — more common mental illnesses — seem to have more of an open platform for their voices; their issues somehow feel more relatable.

Bipolar disorder, an illness that affects roughly 2 percent of Americans, is bit more difficult for people to swallow.

Perhaps “moodiness” is the closest way people can identify with it, but bipolar disorder is so much more than that; it’s a daily struggle.

Bipolar disorder is like having the rug yanked out from underneath you. When you are happy, upbeat and sociable, you can never truly enjoy the feeling because you know it won't last. Depression will always find a way sneak back in.

It’s the unused towels from not showering, building up in your closet. It’s wearing glasses instead of contacts. It’s the heavy weight in your arms that’s keeping you from getting out of bed. It’s a sort of gray fog, a palpable emptiness that you can’t be talked out of.

But after a few days, you’re brushing your hair again and being productive, rushing around, wanting to talk to anyone and everyone who comes your way. It’s like you’re breathing fresh oxygen again, after countless hours of being smothered.

You feel like yourself again, but a much better version. All the right words easily flow at the best times, you feel creative and inspired, in love with life and in love with being who you are. You tell yourself that you’re actually fine and in a sad way, you really start to believe it for a moment.

The cyclical nature of bipolar disorder is honestly what I hate the most about it. The way it tricks you into different modes of thinking, to the point that your thoughts get so distorted that you aren’t sure what to trust anymore.

It’s alternating between feeling so far away from who you are and feeling like you are exactly where you are supposed to be. The speed at which it fluctuates makes you feel like you’re falling down and getting up over and over again. It’s exhausting.

It’s the worst kind of instability, especially when it hits you at an age where you’re already struggling so much with self-identity.

Our 20s are a time when we aren’t exactly sure which direction to take with our lives; its when we have the privilege of having so many options ahead of us.

It’s a time when we second-guess ourselves anyway as we anticipate the scary and the unknown, especially for life after college.

Slapping the label of “bipolar” on my forehead shattered the image of who I thought I was.

I was already feeling like I was going through a thousand transitions when it came to friends, places I lived, subjects that interested me and future professional plans.

Where does my illness fit in with my life? When does the real me start and the bipolarity end?

It’s hard to plan for a career when only some days, I feel so motivated and ambitious, and believe that I’m capable of seizing every opportunity and goal I can.

Other days, I feel so dejected and hopeless, like I will fail no matter what. So, why bother trying?

Other people’s attitudes definitely impacted my confidence as I learned to cope with my illness.

These days, our lives are presented online for everyone to see. People are judgmental and scrutinizing toward others now more than ever, so it is scary to want to open a dialogue on bipolar disorder.

Many are under the impression that people who suffer from bipolar disorder have such terribly fluctuating moods that they can’t hold down jobs or relationships and it is this very ignorant fear that I internalize.

It influences every step I take toward my future and steeps self-doubt in almost every facet of my life, even on the good days.

At the same time, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder has been a blessing in disguise. It has taught me to construct a new sense of self-identity in a way that recognizes that bipolar disorder is still a part of me and my life, but one that does not define me.

For every time my disorder challenges and surprises and conflicts me, I gain a little more strength and patience and love; not only for others, but also for myself.

When you teeter on an edge almost every day of your life, you learn just how strong you become for yourself.

Looking back, I feel disgusted at my initial response toward my acquaintance at the party and his illness. His openness terrified me, and it shouldn’t have.

Even more so, I hate that it has taken me getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder to understand whatever anguish and difficulties my acquaintance was or is still going through.

Why is it that we wallow in states of ignorance for so long that we can’t see things in someone else’s shoes without experiencing it ourselves beforehand?

I wish I could have given him the compassionate response he deserved rather than the blank stare filled with fear and judgment that he received. I wish it didn’t take me a year filled with extreme ups and downs for me to want to be able to do that.

Being bipolar in today’s world isn’t an easy feat when it can feel like the world is sometimes against you. There will always be the line between who you are and your illness, and the challenge is to not always blur the two together.

The best we can do is educate ourselves and facilitate empathy. Only then can we move forward to a place of warmth and acceptance.