Living With Untreated Bipolar Disorder
'I Tortured My Family'
About a week ago ago, I read an article by Hannah Marriott about Catherine Zeta Jones in the United Kingdom's publication, The Telegraph.² The article's headline referred to her "public battle with bipolar disorder."³ The media previously published information on this topic when Ms. Zeta Jones checked herself into a treatment facility on or about April 30th of this year. I thought, isn't it wonderful that Catherine Zeta Jones is going to be so open about her ongoing battle with bipolar disorder? And I thought if she could do it, why couldn't I? After all, I suffer from the same affliction. I believe that it is important to speak openly and candidly about the devastating effects of the mental illness that used to be called Manic Depression--the disease that affects about 4% of the population, yet is still one of the mental illnesses that is shadowed with doubt and skepticism by those who do not understand it.
Because the disease affects approximately 4 in 100 individuals, more information on it should be made public. Specifically, what are its symptoms and how does it affect its victims? By understanding the very basics of the disease, perhaps more individuals who have not yet been diagnosed but are suffering from the pain it causes in not just their lives, but the lives of their loved ones and friends, will recognize it and seek treatment. For approximately ten years, I have been wrestling with this topic and how I might use my own experience to help others. I thought perhaps I would volunteer as the subject of a series of articles on bipolar disorder, not from a clinical standpoint, but rather from a lay person's experience and viewpoint. That way, the illness and its destructive effects are exposed, not in medical terminology and theory, but rather from an actual victim's perspective. So thank you, Catherine Zeta Jones, for your candor, and for prompting me to write about something that I have been trying to do for ten years.
Bipolar disorder is difficult to diagnose. In my own case, I suspect that it first surfaced when I was in my pre-teen and early teenage years. However, I was not conclusively diagnosed until 2004, some forty years later. My first clue should have been when, as an eighth grader, a schoolmate remarked to me one day that, "you sure wear your emotions on your sleeve. One day you're up in the clouds and the next you're down in the dumps." Now, as a pubescent girl in the mid-1960s, I, as well as my parents, thought that mood swings were just part of the norm. I now know that they were not, not to the degree I had them. I also now know that every time hormonal changes like pregnancy, menopause, etc. occur, the disease's effects worsen.
Bipolar disorder is a very painful disease. In one sentence, untreated bipolar disorder can be described as a living hell. it is so painful and so overpowering that its victims will take any steps to stop the pain, and not even consider the consequences. You see, in an individual with bipolar disorder, the brain is incapable of recognizing and heeding the consequences of the sufferer's actions because the disease causes interference with the rationalization processes of the brain.
There are those who still do not believe bipolar disorder is an actual mental illness. In fact, it is a serious medical condition that affects the brain. It is as much a serious illness as hypertension, cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease. The only difference between bipolar disorder and these other afflictions is that bipolar disorder cannot be objectively measured. There is no instrument or procedure, such as a blood pressure cuff, blood glucose meter, MRI, urinalysis, or biopsy that can measure or diagnose bipolar disorder. It cannot be seen on any test, scan or x-ray. Because it is not an objectively diagnosed disease, it must be subjectively diagnosed. In many cases, it is diagnosed only after other conditions have been eliminated. And because bipolar disorder is so difficult to diagnose, there is a high rate of both under-diagnosis and mistaken diagnosis. As a result, it is often impossible for individuals with the condition to receive timely and competent treatment.
What Does It Feel Like?
Bipolar disorder is characterized by a certain imbalance in the chemistry of the brain. Because of the imbalance, the victim's moods are exacerbated. Sure, everyone has mood swings. But in the case of someone with bipolar disorder, the effects of the mood swings are like a pendulum that never stops moving. The best way I can think of to describe it is to think of the thrill ride at an amusement park called "Ocean Motion." Ocean Motion is merely a huge pendulum, in the form of an open ship with bench seats all across the bottom. The pendulum swings from side to side until it reaches a maximum height of 65 feet or so on either side. It starts out very slow and swings a few feet in one direction, then the same distance and height in the other direction. It gradually increases in speed and height until it reaches the maximum height and speed on each side. For obvious reasons, the ride is equipped with mechanisms to stop the ascent and speed before the ship overturns and "dumps" its occupants, causing serious injury or death.
Now imagine your moods (or state of mind) as being the ship. Normal mood swings stay in the mid-range. Everyone has highs and lows, but not so far off the center that they cannot be controlled. People without bipolar disorder have an internal mechanism in the brain that limits the amount of the swing, just like in the ride. For a person with untreated bipolar disorder however, that internal mechanism is skewed by the chemical imbalance. The ship is constantly swinging at the 65 foot height and higher most of the time, resulting in mood ranges from the depths of depression to full blown mania. All too often the ship overturns creating destruction of lives.
The depressive side of the disease is probably better understood than the manic side. Situational depression, sometimes called "the blues," can be described as the lows everyone feels at certain times in their lives. Characteristically, they are caused by life events or "situations," that resolve themselves over a relatively short period of time. They are temporary occurrences. In cases of true bipolar disorder, the depressive symptoms do not go away, especially without medication and therapy. Some of the better recognized symptoms of bipolar related depression, most of which I have personally experienced, include:
- An extreme sadness most of the time
- Loss of enjoyment in activities that used to be pleasurable
- Inability to sleep, overwhelming restlessness
- Continual tiredness and no desire to get out of bed—for long periods at a time
- Loss of appetite, significant weight loss
- Little or no sexual energy
- Inability to focus, stay on task and remember information
- Inexplicable anger at everyone and everything
- Upset, fearful and anxious for no concrete reason
- Withdrawal from family, friends, activities and lack of desire to interact
- Loss of interest in living
- Feeling bad about oneself most of the time, and
- Recurring thoughts of death and ways to kill oneself⁵
On the other side of the pendulum is mania. Manic episodes are indicated by some as the defining feature of bipolar disorder. The best way I can think of to describe mania is that it is a period of heightened excitement, euphoria, over activity, irrational behavior and delusions. Some of the more common symptoms of mania, again most of which I have personally experienced, include:
- Persistent feeling that you're on top of the world, that you are invincible
- Difficulty in maintaining relationships
- Unreasonable feeling of power—anything you want, and anything you want to do is within your reach and nothing and no one can stop you from it
- Implausible amounts of energy; ability to go days without sleep; racing thoughts
- Restless, agitated feeling all the time
- Unfounded anger
- Irrational and erratic behavior fueled by an unnatural optimism of the future
- Overabundance of sexual energy; sexual promiscuity or other risky behavior that is not typical of the person or his/her behavior
- Attention deficit, inability to focus on anything for any amount of time
- Rapid and frenzied speech and the inability to stop talking
- Uncontrolled and uncharacteristic financial irresponsibility; spending for things you don't need and can't afford
- Change in behavior observed by family and friends, for example, starting fights, increased speaking volume and speed, and swelling anger6
For both of these categories, the above lists are not all inclusive. There are many more symptoms.
Now imagine the Ocean Motion moods in your brain continuously swinging from the behaviors of depression to the maniacal behaviors stopping erratically in either direction. Obviously, the constant mood fluctuations affect every aspect of your life and of those with whom you come into contact. Will power alone will not control them. Please understand that I am giving you a lay person's version of the disorder supported only by my first-hand experience with the disease. From my own personal experience, this is the best way I can describe living with untreated bipolar disorder.
The saddest part is that when you are the one experiencing the behaviors, you can't see how they are affecting you and those around you. You think that you're engaging in perfectly normal behavior. You may be perceived by others as simply being a high or over-achiever, a workaholic, or a high functioning individual, until that day when the behavior goes way beyond those perceptions. Even If you are fortunate enough to realize it and want it to stop, will power alone is not enough. At that point, it's like being on a runaway Ocean Motion, and being so intent on jumping off of it that you don't take into account the canyon 300 feet below you when you jump. It may be normal behavior to jump off a run-away Ocean Motion ride. But a rationally thinking person jumps when it is as close to the ground as possible. It is certainly not normal behavior to jump from a height of 65 feet or more at the point where you're over a 300 foot deep ravine. To the "normal" individual who does not suffer from any disorder that affects his/her ability to rationalize, reason, and assess consequences, these behaviors probably seem ridiculous and unimaginable. To those of us who are afflicted with the disorder, these irrational behaviors are a daily occurrence.
Can it be Effectively Treated?
Medication and therapy can help in gaining normalcy in a bipolar disorder suffer's life. But before that happens, as in my case, insurmountable damage may have already been done. The untreated disease and its resulting behaviors wreak inconceivable havoc in lives. I can honestly say that I was very fortunate that a correct diagnosis was finally made in my case, and at that point I was given proper medication and underwent therapy. Prior to that time, however, I had been misdiagnosed as suffering only from depression, and given medication only to treat depression. Now, while that might not seem like such a terrible thing to the person who does not understand the disease, it created even more catastrophes than it solved. Because my treatment had concentrated only on the depressive side of the disorder, it exacerbated the manic behaviors. I was more than out of control. I was on a superhighway heading for implosion, taking everyone and everything in my path with me. As a direct result, I lost my profession, my reputation, family relationships, friends, and all of my household possessions and family heirlooms. To this day, I have been unable to obtain traditional employment, even though it has now been over thirteen years since the point of impact.
I believe, however that rather than focus on the past and what I lost, it is healthier to stay in the present and appreciate what I've gained. On the positive side, had it not been for the diagnosis and excellent treatment that I received as a result of the maniacal incidents and the ultimate consequences of my behavior, I would probably not be alive today. The pain was so great that I would have done anything to stop it, including suicide. In my case, my actions resulted instead in my professional suicide. But I consider myself lucky. I am still alive and I can truly enjoy my life as it is today, the remaining members of my family that still speak to me, and my grandchildren. I can look at myself in the mirror and honestly say that I have nothing to hide. I can live as "normal" an existence as I could ever have hoped to imagine. Ten years ago I did not believe that would have been possible and that I would have been dead by age 53.
Properly treated, there is no reason why a bipolar sufferer should not be able to lead a perfectly "normal," productive life. The key, however, is treatment. Unlike Catherine Zeta Jones, obtaining treatment in a facility does not immediately result in returning to a normal life. Most people afflicted with the disease don't just walk out of a treatment facility, prison, or other institutional facility and star in a new movie. For the most part, we can't even resume business as usual.
Like me, many sufferers have lost everything and do not have the means or the ability to simply start over. One of the biggest problems is that like most mental illness sufferers, there is a stigma placed on us by the general public. The general public, as well as family members and friends, don't understand that our errant behavior, and the resulting damage to ourselves and others, was caused by a disease, and that it is unlikely to reoccur as long as we are obtaining consistent treatment. I can say in my own situation today that I am deathly afraid of NOT being on medication. I won't even allow my prescriptions to lapse, or fail to schedule my next doctor appointment on the way out of one. I never want to put my loved ones through the collateral hell that they experienced as a result of my behaviors; and I never want to experience that kind of pain again.
It is time that there is a greater awareness of the disorder, including an understanding of the fact that when it is properly treated, the behaviors it causes are less likely to occur. The disease needs to be better understood so that its victims will be given a second chance in life, in love and every other aspect of their lives. Perhaps if other individuals are willing to share their experiences so that it is better understood and accepted, eventually the disease will not carry the stigma that it does today.
© 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Kathleen Striggow
This article may not be reproduced or reprinted in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
1Disclaimer: This article is written from the author's non-medical point of view. Except where otherwise referenced, all information in this article is taken from the personal knowledge, understanding and experience of the author and is not intended as a medical opinion or to be construed as such, or used for diagnostic purposes. Anyone who is seeking a diagnosis or information for use in a diagnosis should contact a licensed mental health professional.
Additionally, the article was not written, and is not intended, as a plea for sympathy. Nor is it an attempt to excuse the behavior that is at the core of my work on this topic. It is exactly what it appears to be, and that is an account of my first-hand experience with the disease and the destruction I have seen it cause in the lives of its victims, their families, and their other relationships.
2Marriott, H (2013, July 21). I Torture My Husband. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/10180595/Catherine-Zeta-Jones-I-torture-my-husband.html
5Office of Science Policy, Planning and Communications. (2002, 2006). A story of bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness). (National Institute of Mental Health NIH Publication No. 01-3679). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. 6, 7.
6Id. at 7-8.
© 2013, 2015, 2016 by Kathy Striggow
- Mental Health Treatment Facility Locator
- NIMH · Bipolar Disorder in Adults
This booklet discusses bipolar disorder in adults. For information on bipolar disorder in children and adolescents, see the NIMH booklet, Bipolar Disorder in Children and Adolescents.
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