There are a number of metaphors that try to express what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, and none of them is accurate. Thanks to television commercials for bipolar medications, we have even more metaphors, none of which express the reality of the disorder. Maybe, at heart, it is futile to try to come up with a metaphor. The map is never the territory. But let’s examine some of the most common and see where they succeed and where they fail.
The Black Dog
Winston Churchill was notoriously given to episodes of depression, and he referred to them as “The Black Dog.” It would come and go, but when it was with him, he descended into the depths. (Of course, this did not prevent him from becoming Prime Minister of England and making significant policy decisions and speeches during World War II.)
J.K. Rowling has said that the soul-sucking monsters that appeared in the Harry Potter books were metaphors for depression, being able to remove not only joy and happiness from a person’s soul, but the memories of those emotions, and the possibility of ever feeling them again. (Incidentally, once out of the Dementors’ grasp, chocolate is said to help the person recover.)
This one is popular in TV commercials. A woman (almost always a woman) holds a smiley-face mask in front of her face to cover up her sad expression. Then, after she takes psychotropic medication, she puts the mask in her purse or pocket and suddenly reveals her own smiling face. Or a stock photo shows one person with a brown paper bag over his or her head with a sad face drawn on with marker. This bothers me because it implies that medication takes effect almost immediately, but I suppose there’s no way to show the six-week lag in TV ads.
The underlying metaphor here is being lost and being unable to find your way out. Everything around you is gray (and most likely rainy) and indistinguishable. It’s difficult to impossible to find your way through. This is actually a fairly accurate metaphor for severe depression or a major depressive episode. The sense of futility, of immobilization or being lost, of being unable to see a way out, is common to people with depression.
One of the most common sensations reported by people with anxiety is being about to jump out of their skin, or feeling itchy or twitchy all over. The itchiness or twitchiness may manifest in actual physical symptoms, in which case they’re a perception, not a metaphor anymore.
The feeling of shocks running through the body or the brain is another way we describe anxiety. It can feel like jolts of current that only add to the twitchiness or agitation.
Sometimes the paralyzing side of anxiety is represented by having too many choices or being unable to decipher a map. Instead of being agitated, the person is stymied and motionless. Make no mistake, this is a symptom of anxiety as much as it is one of depression.
House of cards
This metaphor comes to us thanks to a TV commercial. A person suffering from mania confronts a pyramid made of playing cards, climbs it, and keeps climbing until there are only a few cards left, with the idea that they will ultimately tumble. There’s no indication, though, that the person with mania built the pyramid of cards themselves, and the medication kicks in before the stack ever falls.
The feeling of flying is often associated with mania. Soaring far above the mundane and the insignificant, the person with mania feels a sense of grandeur and empowerment, the ability to do anything – and to sustain it. Of course, sustaining the feeling never quite happens. Persons flying high with mania never see the inevitable crash that is coming.
The seesaw. The teeter-totter. Even the swings. These metaphors certainly catch the up-and-down, back-and-forth motion of bipolar cycles. There are just two things wrong with these metaphors: They portray movements of equal length. And they’re fun. Bipolar moods do not come on a schedule or last a predictable amount of time. And there’s nothing fun about bipolar disorder.
A rollercoaster is perhaps the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder. It improves on the playground equipment analogy some. A rollercoaster, like bipolar, can be scary, especially the first time you experience it. It does involve up and down motions of unequal length. But the rollercoaster has the process backward. The climb up is slow, not an exhilarating whoosh. The swift ride to the bottom is the exciting part, which of course it isn’t. And, of course, once you’ve been through the whole route once, you have to get off and pay to get on again.
We use these metaphors because it’s almost impossible to convey what bipolar disorder is like to someone who’s never experienced it. And they can never convey the reality. Among those of us who have experienced the disorder, we use them as shorthand to describe the feelings we share, at least to some degree, with one another and with others, in hopes that they’ll “get it,” even just a bit.
But language has its limits, especially when it comes to describing what’s going on with our brains and emotions. Sometimes metaphors are as close as we can get.