What does it feel like to have bipolar disorder?

  • What does it feel like to have bipolar disorder?
  • Can you fight bipolar disorder without medication?

I have bipolar disorder, as does my mother and as did her mother. I am the sort of person who “seems” bipolar to people; that is, my energy, creativity, instability, mercuriality, and easy gregariousness confirm many of the popularly-imagined stereotypes about bipolar people.

That said, I think only in their extremes are mania and depression actually unintelligible to ordinary folks. That is: at their utmost intensity, they are unlike anything a normal person ever experiences (mania is, in particular, qualitatively different at the end than any healthy mood state), but at most times they not at all different from the maximally-intense moods everyone knows: just more-so, longer-lasting, and disconnected from normative causes.

To understand what having bipolar disorder “feels like,” keep in mind the following:

  • Bipolar is less about short-term mood instability than about long term mood cycles which can last months, years, in rare cases even decades (see F. M. Mondimore for more on cycles and durations). Instability is part of it, but not the only part.
  • The cumulative effect of these cycles on the formation of a personality is significant. After a childhood of radically changing interests and attitudes on such a timeline, one develops a certain excitability, flightiness, distractibility, or perhaps that’s just me. But this is a major part of bipolar: the personality that is shaped by a lifetime of intense, fluctuating moods.
  • Cycles grow in intensity over time. This means that at first in mania, for example, you’re simply in a great mood; then you’re really in an extraordinarily creative, kinetic, charming mood; then you’re the life of all parties and you’re feeling pretty libidinous; then you’re doing irresponsible things and fleeing a pursuing psychosis; then you’re in psychosis, tortured by acousticovisual hallucinations, paranoia, and your own penchant for completely unacceptable reactions and behavior. This progression can take days, weeks, months, or years.
  • The same progression tends to hold for depression.

Kay Redfield Jamison [1] is a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins who suffers from, treats, and writes about bipolar disorder. About mania, she writes:

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