The Bipolar Language

How do you describe bipolar disorder to others who do not have it?

Most of the population experiencing bipolar disorder have heralded it as something “people can’t fully understand unless they have been through it.”ย  Being a member of that group, I can wholeheartedly agree. In my personal attempts to convey the complexity of bipolar disorder to a non-Dx person, I have found myself at a loss for words that would do it justice. Describing emotions is putting the intangible into context.

And so much more.

Even when I am successful at touching upon the idea, I am largely incapable of even scratching the surface. The intensity, duration, debilitation, and so many other aspects seem to get lost in translation. Non-Dx people are mystified. “I feel those things, too.” Every human being has emotions akin to those that are experienced within the spectrum of bipolar disorder. Non-Dx people cannot wrap their heads around the magnitude of what creates the dysfunction. “I can control them. Why can’t you?”

Frustration ensues. Such miscommunication is an extreme aggravation. Tempers may flare. “It’s not the same thing!” It’s the same animal of a different color. In essence, similarities can be drawn, but a fault line exists between the two.

I am empathetic to the plight of a person who suffers with bipolar disorder. I have experienced the rage that boils when I feel as if I a being dismissed or preemptively judged against an unjust standard. The words above send me into elevations, like a volcano spitting lava high into the sky. At this precise moment, communications break down entirely. All hope is lost. If the villagers don’t evacuate now, total destruction is eminent.

On the other hand, using descriptive language devoid of passion fails to drive the point home. To a non-Dx person, it is any regular conversation. Words are words. It does not have the demonstrative power of action. However, action is often misinterpreted more so than words. Too many questions arise. Why? Now, we’re right back where we started.

And extreme action is likely to be met with animosity or apathy. It is ironic that when a person has a severe bipolar episode, others often fall short of providing the appropriate responses. I’ve often encountered loved ones who laid certain claims; “I am not going to tolerate this behavior.” – “Get a grip.” – “I refuse to talk to you when you’re like this.” – “Get over it.” – “Are we going to go through this, again?” Resentment. That is what perpetuates throughout repeated episodes.

The schism between people with bipolar disorder an non-Dx people grows in breadth and depth. Communication is endangered, if not completely extinct. Isolation begins, and episodes worsen. Without a support system, a non-Dx person is likely to crumble. A support system that is non-existent in the life of a person with bipolar disorder is the quickest route to utter annihilation of oneself.

I have been there. Then, I managed to navigate my way back again.

Back to the original question. How do you describe bipolar disorder to a person that doesn’t have it?

In my experience, I have worked it out. Non-Dx people do have strong emotions. These are in response to serious situations. To them, they are overwhelming; to me, it would knock me flat.

I allow the non-Dx person to draw the comparison between emotions. It is a good jumping point, although it is likely meant as a retort coming from their end. “This is not an argument. This is a discussion,” I remind myself repeatedly when tempers start to flare. I continue with the following points:

My brain chemistry is unique in the way that I become particularly reactive. That is one of many facets of bipolar disorder. Extreme sensitivity to situations that provoke strong emotion.

This may be met with a usual, “Grow a thicker skin.” or “Let it slide.”

I continue:

Recall a situation where you felt strongly about something. Like, when someone very close to you died. Or, you lost your job. Or, you found out that the love of your life cheated on you.


Weren’t you very distraught? Even extremely sad?


Imagine having those feelings arise without cause. Then, consider what it would be like to live months like that.

That is how I relate depression. Extreme feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and despair for long periods of time.

For hypomania, I continue like this:

Now, remember a time where you felt the best you ever did. You got a promotion or bought your first car or house. Maybe the day your spouse said yes to your proposal or the day you got married.

Yeah, those were some great times.

Now, think of what it would be like to feel that way for a long time.

That sounds awesome!

Sure, but think of a time where you were the most angry you could ever be. Someone you love lied to you or stole from you. A co-worker betrayed you and threw you under the bus. Your boss unjustly blamed you. Think of a time where you just wanted to scream and break things.

That’s the other side of the feeling good. It is being really irritable or angry constantly for a long time.

Oh, that’s not good.

No. But that’s not all. What would it be like to never really know for sure how you’re going to feel? Pretty scary, maybe? And worse, you may never know how long you’re going to feel that way.

That’s part of living life with bipolar disorder. Did you ever have a time that you did or said something you regret because you lost control for a minute?

Of course!

That’s what an episode is like. Struggling for control, every single day, because you can’t help the way you feel.

It puts the person in your shoes for a second. It helps them cultivate an understanding of the intensity and duration of human emotion that creates the dysfunction. This dysfunction has a name. It’s called bipolar disorder.

Now, I want to know. How have you gone about relating your disorder to others? It doesn’t have to limited to bipolar disorder. Non-Dx people and people of different Dx’s all have trouble relating to disorders. How do you explain what you experience?

10 thoughts on “The Bipolar Language

  1. love it. i think you have described it well! i think people try to relate it to themselves and that is where the misunderstanding comes in, even though they have the best of intentions. the loss of control is where people need education, i think anyway ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I’ve tried to target this to the population having difficulty with loved ones. I have heard about a lot of people with diagnoses trying to help their parents and significant others understand.

      It was a major battle between my husband and me for awhile. Like, about the first two years after my diagnosis. He didn’t understand why the dysfunction was happening. Why can’t I control myself sometimes and just get over it?

      It has only been within the last six months or so that he’s come to get an idea and be able to respond to episodes appropriately. I sometimes wonder if he reads my blog in secret. I don’t keep it a secret from him. It’s public and he knows where to find it. If he does read it, he’s never mentioned it.

  2. I think you have done an excellent job of relating the indescribable. I feel very fortunate, in that the people who are most central in my life all seem to have a pretty good capability to empathize with me. They may not all have experienced what I have first hand (and I am grateful that they haven’t), but after years of seeing me go through it, my loved ones understand my difficulties. I am never given the “Control yourself,” or, “Get over it.”

    But I also know some pretty above average people! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • So, I wrote the reply, but I guess I forgot to hit send. I moved over to click off of this tab, and as I was clicking I saw the box open and full of words. All I could do was let my mouth hit the floor.

      I hate when something eats my original reply. I can never really capture the essence again. But, I always try anyway. Like I’ve told my kids at school during musical theater, the crowd doesn’t know that you made a mistake unless you act like it. Just roll with the scene itself and remember that only you remember how it’s supposed to go.

      The only time that I’ve ever heard the “get over it” and “get a grip” (both from my mother, by the way, who has absolutely no room to talk) is before my diagnosis and early into treatment. It’s like, people didn’t get it. And I understand, people make a lifelong practice out of getting a handle on their emotion. There is a careful balance between expression, emotion, and logic. While most of the people in my own age group have already mastered this, it is difficult for people who have a Dx. That’s why it’s called a disorder. There is a clear dysfunction there.

      I have been wanting to write this post for awhile. It’s been sitting, banked in my drafts (along with 11 others, honestly). It’s difficult for loved ones to wrap their heads around it, and know how to handle it. Most of the people in my life have either accepted it, ignored it, or abandoned it. And as for the people who walked out on me, if they can’t handle it, then it’s better for the both of us. I cannot have an honest and open relationship with someone who just can’t deal with it.

      And you do know so absolutely remarkable people. I wish those people could educate others. If that were the case, then this post might not exist!!

  3. what is with some mothers? my mother tells me I don’t have ‘real’ bipolar disorder – whatever that means. No, my psychiatrist just puts me on all this dangerous meds for the fun of it Mum… *sigh*


    • My mother could believe it, though she didn’t want to acknowledge that was the cause for beehavior, because “that would be enabling me”. My father was the one who outright refused there was anything wrong with me. And my husband insisted that I either had MDD or BPD. He was like a combination of my parents. We’ve come a long way in the last few years.

      I wrote an account on James Claims about how my father came to terms with it. When coming from an appointment, we talked about symptoms. He started to draw similarities between the two of us, symptoms, medications, etc. And I could see it on his face. Pain that I had to go through the same that he did. Guilt that he didn’t believe me and this could all possibly by his fault. And empathy for what I’ll have to face for the rest of my life.

      He never said a word about my medication again. I have always trusted my father with my life in regards to being able to respond in a medical emergency. (He’s a war vet). But, I would give him the final decision on hospitalizing me. He knows better than anyone.

  4. Thank you so much for this topic! I just had to tell my family I was an alcoholic and then 2 months later tell them I was bi-polar. My mom knows how I have suffered through depression, but we never really connected the dots of BP. I was diagnosed 10 yrs ago but in complete denial and quit going to the dr or taking meds. I chose to assume the mood swings were from my alcoholism. It was no suprise to them I was an alcoholic, afterall, they already knew. I didn’t. BP on the other hand they can’t see as well. It’s hard to put into words. I plan on drawing from this post later to try and help explain it.


    • It’s an ongoing process. A few words may open their eyes to some things, but it has to be a constant dialog that may get ugly and painful at times. Alcoholism is apparent when you see a person chugging a bottle of Bacardi 151 (been there…). Bipolar Disorder is not visible to the naked eye. It’s a serious disorder that requires lifelong treatment. Daunting, I know. But, those are things that need to be shared with loved ones.

      I know that it took a long time for my family to truly get it. And I fully intend on writing a post about it.

  5. Great post! I don’t have too much trouble with those in my midst questioning. I had a bit of an issue with my perception of the words my mom and sister said…I heard “you of little faith…Jesus can heal you” even though they really didn’t say it. I replied, “God is the one who directed me to the helpful tools and sources of support.” They now accept that I have to work really hard at maintenance.

    The hardest thing these days is when my husband says, “What is wrong with you?” in a condemning tone of voice. We have talked to death what I need…hugs and love, not pulling away, but he forgets. He thinks it’s best to stay away until I come back to my logical, peaceful self. He’s definitely a reactor to my moods. I’m grateful the mood shifts only happen noticeably a couple times a month. The rest of the time, I work hard to stay stable and am successful. As for my part, I should be able to communicate better with him when an episode is coming on…but it usually hits before I’m even aware and I forget what’s helpful too. My therapist encouraged me to put a plan in writing for hypomania and depression. She wants dear hubby and I to come up with a relapse prevention plan using signals or words to let him know when I’m heading into ‘I’m no good-no one likes me’ territory with the isolation, tears, such self condemnation which sometimes spills over into irritation and blame.

    • Husbands have a hard time with this. They love so much that they want to fix it, and fix it now. And when they can’t, they get frustrated. And they start thinking that they can never fix it, or they make it worse. My husband used to get so frustrated with me when I was in a state. I’d act out and he’d act out. I’d accidently hurt him. And he started to withdraw. It isolated me further, made my symptoms worse, and started to create a divide between us.

      I can’t tell you what happened. A year ago, he denied my disorder, refused my symptoms, everything. Today, he knows how to handle it. I was about to have a meltdown last night. I just kept messing everything up. My head was in a bad place, and he was flipping out. I went and hid in the bathroom. He called to me, and kindly asking me to come out and join him in finishing up dinner. He knew. He didn’t ignore it, or get angry. He was understanding and proactive.

      It took two and a half years to get here. I guess it takes time and a lot of work, a little bit of everyday practice to get there.

      Or else, my husband has secretly been reading my blog. That’s the only other thing I can think of.

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