There aren’t any rules for Bipolar Disorder

What is this thing called Bipolar disorder?

I could list numerous, basically identical definitions from all over the web. But let’s just go straight to The National Institute of Mental Health.  This formidable institute says, “Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”

Um. Okay.

They aren’t wrong. This is kinda what Bipolar is. It just is nowhere near ALL that it is. They fail to mention that. They don’t shine any real light on the complexity and enigmatic quality of Bipolar.

A newly diagnosed individual searching for information and answers probably won’t feel satisfied with this, probably won’t see themselves in it.  They may not be able to reconcile the shitstorm going on inside of them with this description. That can be bewildering and distressing.  If you scour the internet hard enough you will find some more satisfactory nuggets describing Bipolar.  But for most of us it isn’t until sharing with and listening to other Bipolars that we really start to make sense of this Bipolar thing.

This unique set of issues that some people have currently decided to label “Bipolar” existed before there were doctors and therapists and labels and terminology. It is OUR thing that they are trying to figure out.  It is not their thing that we have to figure out how to fit into.

It is like trying to press peaches through a paper towel roll. Sure, a peach will go through a paper towel roll but it will be very messy and there will be a lot of extra peach lying around confusing everyone. A lot of head scratching. “Well what is this now?”…”How did this get here?”….”This is just too messy.”…”What are we going to do with it?”…”What shall we call it?”  That is what happens when you push Bipolar through the rules.

A lot of us spend a dizzying amount of time analyzing and measuring ourselves against the DSM and other rules we find about Bipolar.  When we can’t fit in a way that satisfies us we may have a hard time believing or accepting our diagnosis.  We may not see an episode (usually mania) that is right in front of our faces. You know, it’s the old “This can’t be mania because I am sleeping so well. I really NEED all of those clothes and silk scarves I just bought!” thought process.  This can be dangerous.

I am sure there must be some great Pdocs and therapists out there who do talk about this with their Bipolar clients. I have amassed a sizable sample of these people and have only found one doctor who does this. If you have one don’t ever let them go.

It’s true that to be initiated into this club you must be hazed by enduring some fabulous depression and at least one mania of some kind.

But guys….there are no Bipolar rules. You can be manic and sleep well and not engage in risk taking behaviors. You can be baseline and wake up suffocating in anxiety. You can be depressed and then feel fine the next morning and then that night drink yourself to the floor the racing thoughts are too much to handle sober.  It is all Bipolar.

They keep trying to throw out more language and more rules (rapid this, ultra rapid that etc etc) to try to contain this for us. And that is very nice of them.  I really do appreciate it.

All I want is a little more acknowledgment that they don’t really get us and that they are just trying to.

I want them to clearly tell us that all of the jagged edged pieces of Bipolar that we actually experience are legitimate even if they haven’t figured out yet what to call them.

So if you are reading this and you are struggling to squeeze your Bipolar into the rules, take a deep breath, relax, and just focus on learning about your own unique version of this “illness.”

It is after all, OUR  “disorder” not theirs.



Add Yours
  1. Toodles

    The obsessive side of the illness is never really mentioned in symptoms etc. Does this even come under the spectrum? I struggle with it at times. Songs, ex partners, past mistakes. Round and round and round in my head. A carousel of self loathing and heartache. Not dissimilar to a ‘mixed’ state. Now there’s an ‘interestimg’ topic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  2. dyane

    This is a GREAT post – I get it, I do, but I hope you’ll still like me after I share the following – I never thought I’d write this, but I actually value the current DSM-5 because (and this is for purely selfish reasons) they are one of very few organizations that even recognize the fact that childbirth triggered my bipolar. Why does that even matter? Well, it’s a long story, but 99% of the time I get totally blown off by both the bipolar and postpartum mood communities about what my experience has been like and no one wants to even acknowledge that what happened to me was a real phenomenon, i.e. I had a baby and my bipolar got triggered, and it was not postpartum psychosis like I’ve been told by people who don;t know me…. it was bipolar. (and hypergraphia but I’ll spare you the details on that for now) I know this sounds like junior high stuff, but it gets me down – the fact that everyone talks the fuck out of postpartum depression and all the other postpartum mood/anxiety disorders but they leave mine out. So I was shocked that the DSM- 5 actually included my ice cream flavor of bipolar. It felt good.

    I want to know others who have been through what I’ve been through and that can’t happen unless there’s a name for it. Of course I’d rather name it myself than use the word “bipolar” but I’m stuck there. 😉 Sorry if this doesn’t make sense…today is harder for me to explain than other days. Not enough coffee. Thanks for reading and for your support!!!!!


    • bipolarfirst

      HA of COURSE i still like you. you’re awesome possum.

      I can get down with rule followers if they’re cool 🙂 😛

      But for serious…I am so nOT anti the DSM….

      What my issue is is that we can get so caught up in fitting the dx and following the rules that it leads to questioning and doubting and confusion and just more suffering.

      The DSM is so essential and so necessary and I am so grateful to live in a time when we have it.

      I also really like that they are trying to make it work better and better….example I am a big fan of the term mixed features…

      Because that is a nod at the complexity

      I just think the whole community needs more empowerment…more of a sense of ownership of Bipolar…

      that it is ours and not something we have to “fit”

      The thing we call Bipolar has been around longer than the DSM. I think we forget that.

      We seem to think that THEY know all about Bipolar when in reality WE can be the experts of our own individual Bipolar.

      And when you realize this you can be a stronger advocate for yourself.

      Just like women have taken back some power in childbirth…

      I think the “mentally ill” deserve to take some power back.

      So that psychiatry isn’t something that is “done to” us.

      But something that works FOR US.


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