So you know someone who has bipolar. If you’re asking him or her one of these questions—don’t. We’re sick of hearing them.
“Do you change your mind, like, all the time?”
So somewhere along the line, bipolar disorder became synonymous with changing your mind a lot, which leads to the term being used like this:
“Oh man, it was raining and now it stopped? This weather is bipolar.”
“Oh man, your toaster was working and now it’s not? Your toaster is bipolar.”
So let me clear this up. Changing your mind a lot is not bipolar disorder. That’s indecisiveness, which is not a mental disorder. Bipolar disorder is alternating (or sometimes overlapping) periods of extreme depression and mania, which is pretty much the opposite of depression. Just like a normal person has gentle ups and downs depending on what’s going on in their life, we do too—but our baseline changes. Where most people go from happy to sad, we can go from okay to completely numb (when we’re depressed) or ecstatic to agitated (when we’re manic). And these moods typically last anywhere from a few months to a few years. So it’s not that we wake up every day a different person—we settle into patterns of thought for longer periods of time.
And guess what? When we settle into a pattern of thought for a longer period of time, we learn to live like that. We learn to recognize when we’re depressed or manic, and can usually tell when it’s affecting our thinking. It becomes our new normal. Yes, it means we have to figure ourselves out again every year or so, but we do figure it out.
So please don’t ask us this question. We get it all the time, and the misconception is just annoying.
“You don’t seem crazy. Are you sure you have it?”
This is kind of like asking if someone really has irritable bowel syndrome because you’ve never seen them crap their pants in the middle of a meeting. We struggle. A lot. But most of us work very hard to keep things together in public. We already feel like misfits and failures who burden everyone around us, so of course we won’t show people that we’re struggling.
Just because you don’t see us struggle doesn’t mean we don’t lock ourselves in an empty conference room and curl up in a little ball on the floor for a few minutes because everything is too much. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean we don’t live in fear that we’ll display poor judgment in a moment of weakness and do something stupid that we’ll regret for months or years.
So if we don’t seem crazy… thanks? I guess that means we’re doing a good job of covering it up, but please don’t assume that we’re not struggling and are just wearing this diagnosis like a piece of costume jewelry. If I could shed this diagnosis, I would do it in a heartbeat, but that’s not a luxury I have.
“Are you going to go on a shooting spree?”
No joke, I once told a general practice doctor I was bipolar and he replied, “Whoa! You killed any kittens lately? Ha ha.”
Yes, doctor, violent bipolar people are definitely the people that you should be making fun of and provoking. That was in Florida, because of course that would happen in Florida. And for the record, no, I have never killed any kittens.
This is actually a pretty widespread belief: that bipolar people are on the brink of insanity and will inevitably snap and start murdering people. I don’t know where it comes from. The list of bipolar symptoms includes things like “abnormally upbeat,” “increased activity,” “unusual talkativeness,” and “buying sprees.” Oh, and depression. Horrible depression. But none of the official symptoms denote violence of any kind.
Now, have bipolar people harmed others? Sure. Have neurotypical people harmed others? Well, yeah, but we can hardly blame that. Have people who eat ice cream harmed people? Come on, now! It’s usually the same factors at play: things like extreme duress or drug abuse. These can, and do, happen to anyone—bipolar and mental illness by themselves do not make people violent.
“Have you ever tried to kill yourself?”
Let’s follow this thought for a moment. You ask this question. Where are you expecting the conversation to go from there?
“Oh yeah, I totally tried, like, five or six times. I’ve got scars all over my arms, and the emergency room even gave me one of those punch cards, so the tenth trip’s free. That brings back some great memories. Let me buy you a drink.”
(Hint: that’s not how that conversation will go.)
There are only three outcomes for that conversation:
- The answer is yes, so I say yes, and things get really awkward as you try to make the conversation not weird and fail. Nothing good happens.
- The answer is yes, but I say no. You go on your merry way and I’m stuck reliving the worst part of my life over and over in my head. I feel like complete shit. Nothing good happens.
- The answer is no, and it feels like you’re questioning the legitimacy of my condition, which people totally do all the time. Things get really awkward. Nothing good happens.
In case you missed that, nothing good happens with any of those outcomes.
Unless you know me really, really well and are asking from a place of love, there’s no reason to ask this question. It’s like asking a woman how many miscarriages she’s had. This is a painful topic, and it’s not appropriate to bring up in everyday conversation.
“I’ve heard medication is dangerous. Are you sure you want to be on that stuff?”
Oh, trust me, we’re intimately aware of the negative effects of medication. When we talk to each other, lousy side effects are usually one of the biggest topics of conversation. If we’re on medication, it’s because whatever we were dealing with before going on medication was way, way worse than the side effects we’re dealing with now.
This is a question we get frequently. We’ve heard it all. If you’re coming from a place of sincere concern, we appreciate it, but we’ve done the appropriate research and know the best course of action.
If you’re coming from a place of smug intellectual superiority, though—for instance, if you suggest that the entire psychiatric field is a fraud and we’ve just been deluded—this will definitely not be well-received. If we’re on medicine, it’s because it’s the only shot we have at a normal life. If you try to tell us that we’re deluded or just lazy, you’re not only robbing us of a normal life—you’re telling us that we’re really failures, because truth is, we’ve all tried to live normal lives without medicine and failed.
So if you really care about us, that’s great, but we’re on medicine because we chose it. And if you really care about your own research and pseudoscience, keep that to yourself, unless you want to permanently alienate us.
“Hey, have you tried this natural alternative therapy I heard about from Dr. Oz?”
Please, just stop.