I have bipolar; my father had bipolar; my mother is a mental health professional. I couldn’t possibly have fallen for any of the myths surrounding bipolar disorder, right? Wrong! Here I identify and debunk the top 10 myths I believed about my diagnosis.
I was diagnosed with bipolar 18 years ago. My dad was diagnosed with bipolar 28 years ago. My mom is a psychotherapist. You’d think that growing up with a parent who had bipolar, having my own diagnosis for almost two decades, and having a mental health professional in my family would’ve prevented me from believing myths about bipolar disorder. But you’d be wrong.
Because I have bipolar disorder, I often fall victim to distorted thinking. I find myself engaging in all-or-nothing reasoning like “I’ll always feel this way” or “No one will ever accept me.” But thinking something is true doesn’t make it actually true. By learning to challenge my own thoughts, I can prevent the snowball effect of negativity and rumination that can lead to depression.
By analyzing and challenging my thoughts about bipolar, I identified 10 myths I used to believe. Here I debunk them all:
#1 “Bipolar isn’t a real diagnosis; it’s just normal mood swings.”
I used to think that my extreme mood shifts and risky behavior were just a result of the normal ups and downs that come with, well, life. But I was wrong. I’ve experienced the pits of despair and the blinding rage of mania. When depressed, I missed work and school, and I was hospitalized for attempting to take my own life. When manic, I was arrested for shoplifting. When hypomanic, I was promiscuous, and I maxed out my credit cards. My episodes can be debilitating. They can last for months. I know bipolar—a mood disorder—can look like mood swings. But bipolar is a real diagnosis that has real consequences if left untreated.
#2 “Bipolar disorder is rare.”
Bipolar affects approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, according to the International Bipolar Foundation. I used to feel isolated and alone. I thought no one could understand what I was going through. . . . Until I went to a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) support group. I found people who understood how I felt— because they’ve been through the same depth and breadth of emotions as I have. And many of them even made the same mistakes I made. If you feel like you’re treading water in the middle of the ocean without a life preserver, think again. You’re absolutely not alone. There are groups all over the world that can help you find a sense of kinship and support.
#3 “I don’t need help.”
I’m tough. I’m not fazed by doctor’s visits, the dentist’s office, or needles. I’m resilient. I’ve been through two divorces and the loss of a parent. And I used to have a hard time asking for help when I needed it. I often kept my suicidal thoughts and impulsive whims to myself. I thought I could just tough it out. Suck it up. Move forward. But I, like everyone else, need help managing my illness. I rely on my psychiatrist, my therapist, and my friends and family for support and effective treatment. I’m strong. But that doesn’t mean I’m invincible. Staying stable means asking for—and accepting—help from others. I simply can’t manage my moods on my own. I’m okay with that, though, because without the support of my treatment team, I might not be here today.
#4 “Medications will take away my creativity.”
Lots of people with bipolar disorder are creative. I’m an artist by nature. Even when I’m not designing graphics for movie sets or writing a book, I unwind by making art for fun. I used to think my creativity would only flourish if I experienced the highs of mania or hypomania. But mood shifts actually rob me of the ability to think clearly enough to organize my thoughts. It takes a certain level of calm to discover ideas and give them form. When I’m manic or hypomanic, my mind often races so fast that I can’t reflect on anything long enough to generate coherent ideas. However, I’ve found that with the right treatment, I’m able to both be inspired and process information effectively enough to create something I can be proud of. I may be one of those “bipolar creatives,” but if I’m unstable, my ideas are unable to take shape.
#5 “Nobody will love me with this illness.”
Bipolar disorder does not make me defective. Yes, my mania and depression can be challenging. My extreme mood shifts have caused their fair share of destruction in some of my relationships. That’s why it’s so important to take care of myself. By taking an active role in my stability, I’ve been able to sustain long-term, healthy friendships and a romantic partnership. I’ve learned to love myself by accepting my diagnosis. And when I care for myself, others will follow.
#6 “There’s a cure.”
Unfortunately, no cure has been found. Yet. Scientists are working on identifying genes, stem cells, and technology that may one day provide a cure. Until then, I focus on effective management. I see a talk therapist; I attend support groups; and I take my medications as prescribed. Even beyond the basics, though, I also eat healthy, get enough sleep, exercise, and meditate. Managing bipolar disorder requires a whole-person approach. With the right treatment and self-care, I haven’t just survived. I’ve thrived.
#7 “I’ll never find the right treatment.”
My bipolar diagnosis was the beginning of my journey toward stability. Finding the right cocktail of medications to become stable was a process of trial and error. Even though I experienced side effects like weight gain, weight loss, insomnia, nausea, and fatigue, I stuck with it. I didn’t give up. With the help of my treatment team, I’m now living my best life.
#8 “I can live my life just like everyone else does.”
Because I have bipolar disorder, I’m different from people who don’t live with this illness. I have unique needs. My mental health depends on getting enough sleep, limiting my caffeine and alcohol intake, and abstaining from recreational drugs with mind-altering effects. I can’t stay out all night and party. I can’t travel to different time zones without adequate preparation. I can’t take anti-inflammatory steroids, because they can trigger mania. However, by having a routine and staying cognizant of my triggers, I can enjoy my life while staying stable.
#9 “I can ignore triggers.”
Once I found the right medication, I thought I’d never have another episode. I thought wrong. Being stable doesn’t mean I can ignore triggers. My episodes can be ignited by anything from breakups to job losses to everyday stressors like traffic. And my illness can add fuel to the fire. I must pay attention to my thoughts and mood shifts, especially when I experience a change in my life. I can’t stop life from happening, but I can effectively manage my triggers by identifying them and taking extra care of myself in those difficult times. By reaching out for help when I need it, I’m able to weather even the roughest storms.
#10 “Things will never get better.”
If you feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and isolated, I’ve been there, too; and I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. In 2011, I mistakenly thought my bad situation was permanent. I’m so grateful that my attempt to end my own life failed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten a second chance. I now know that things can and will get better. Ending your life is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
As the DBSA explains, “the most important thing to remember about suicidal thoughts is that they are symptoms of a treatable illness associated with fluctuations in the body’s and brain’s chemistry. They are not character flaws or signs of personal weakness, nor are they conditions that will just go away on their own.”
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts and ideation, helplines are open 24/7. Please make the call, reach out for help.
Bipolar disorder is often accompanied by negative thinking, obsessive rumination, and black-and-white thinking. But, again, thinking something is true doesn’t make it so.
Now that I know my mind can play tricks on me, I’ve learned to reach out for help, get feedback from others, and take an active role in my recovery. By remembering my thoughts are just that: thoughts—not absolute truths—I can live my life to the fullest while maintaining my stability. And if I can do it, so can you.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She's finishing a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
Managing bipolar takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but the positive effects in your life can certainly make it worth it. Bipolar disorder is a genetic illness that affects a person’s ability to self regulate the mood. I’ve lived with the illness for …can you believe it… almost 40 years. Yikes! The...
Bipolar disorder is not an emotional illness. Our mood swings are the result of chemicals in our brains––not because of the way we are. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 31, a friend of mine said, “Wow, now maybe you can deal with your problems!” I remember being very shocked by...
What if someone is telling you that you have bipolar, but you don’t think that the diagnosis is correct? A reader asked a really good question on my blog post “Dealing with Bipolar Disorder Denial.” She wanted to know what to do if someone in your life—a friend, loved one, coworker—tells you that they believe...
Bipolar consists of mania and depression. Sometimes mania gets a pass because of perceived “benefits,” but ignoring your mania means you aren’t fully addressing your condition. Do you really want to end your mood swings? I ask this question honestly. Many of us want to end depression. It’s a terrible, vicious and life-threatening experience for...