Those of us who are bipolar share a lot. Obviously, we have mood swings, from depression to mania or hypomania and back again. We are all affected by the stigma that attaches to serious mental illness. And we all want and try to achieve some balance in our lives.
Yet there are differences. Bipolar disorder comes in a variety of versions, the best known being 1 and 2, but now also 3 and 4. (I don’t know enough about 3 and 4 to discuss them here and now, but I’ll try to catch up on it and write about that later.) Those with bipolar 1 know more of mania than I do, but I’m an expert on depression. Others go through different levels and combinations of the two. Some people experience psychosis and may have to be hospitalized. But some of us manage the symptoms and go through life with less extreme manifestations. Some of us are seriously disabled and others decidedly less so.
Even our experiences of mood swings differ. We may go through long spells of depression or mania, or little of one and more of the other. Or we have symptoms that come and go in shorter bursts, or even in “rapid cycling” or “mixed states.”
If we’re lucky enough to get treatment for our bipolar disorder, we can have many different experiences of that, too. There’s talk therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Some people try “natural” treatments involving meditation, diet, supplements, exercise, and other techniques. And there are new treatments being developed, including ketamine, a revised version of ECT, and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation).
Of course, for many people, bipolar disorder means medications. The list of possibly helpful meds is long and seems to grow longer every day. And the doses of those meds vary as well. So do the side effects. What works for one bipolar person may have no effect on another, even if they have the same symptoms. Effective dosages will differ. And side effects can be intolerable to one person, acceptable to another, and not even happen to a third. (That’s one reason I don’t like to give advice about medications. Ask your doctor, or at least your pharmacist.)
But beyond the simple facts of bipolar disorder, there are differences in how we approach it. Affirmations and positivity work for some people but leave others cold. Humor can alleviate the sometimes brutal reality or it can seem insensitive and cruel. Everyone has his or her own tolerance for these approaches and no one can say what’s right or wrong for a given individual.
So, do these differences divide us or do the commonalities bring us together? Personally, I think that sharing our individual experiences of bipolar disorder; our own perceptions of how bipolar affects us; our techniques and methods of getting through the highs and lows; the ways we manage our symptoms and treatments; and our sources of strength – and even moments of weakness – bring us together in spite of an illness that tries its best to separate us from one another and from the rest of the world.
I have my own struggles with bipolar and you have yours. In that sense, each of us is alone, suffering to one degree or another. But we have more in common than separates us. And if, as the saying goes, suffering shared is halved and joy shared is doubled, by sharing we have one more way of fighting this disorder and one more way of finding the good in life despite our illness.
I think too many of us spend time feeling isolated or isolating ourselves from what could be a rich source of companionship and healing. This may in many ways be an individual battle, but in another sense, we’re all in this together.