A quick pop-quiz: What do Carrie Fisher, Jean-Claude van Damme, Sinead O’Connor, Vincent van Gogh, Vivien Leigh, Mel Gibson, Russell Brand, Amy Winehouse, Brian Wilson, Edgar Allen Poe, Kim Novak, Mike Tyson, Ted Turner, Jesse Jackson Jr, Cheri Oteri, Ray Davies and Dick Cavett have in common? From music, film, sports and the fine arts these various celebrities represent one collective face of mental illness. They all suffer(ed) with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that represents the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide and results in 9.2 years reduction in expected lifespan with 20% of patients committing suicide.
Some celebrities have been very outspoken in their struggle, including:
Catherine Zeta-Jones: “If my revelation of having bipolar II has encouraged one person to seek help, then it is worth it. There is no need to suffer silently, and there is no shame in seeking help.”
Demi Lovato: “I felt relieved when I found out. Like, I’m not completely crazy; there’s a medical reason for all of it.”
Richard Dreyfuss: “The worst thing for me about manic-depression is that it is simply free-floating. You can have no reason whatsoever, and yet you are in the depths of an inarticulable sadness and grief and self-hatred.”
Attaching a famous name or glamorous headshot to bipolar disorder, however, doesn’t truly relay what it means to live with symptoms. A look at bipolar statistics reveals that this mental illness, characterized by alternating and unpredictable mood swings with symptoms of mania (excessive exuberance, over-the-top plans, racing thoughts, reduced sleep) or depression (excessive sadness, uncontrollable crying, loss of energy, increased sleep) affects approximately 5.7 million adults, most often becomes active around age 25 and, 66% of the time, contains a hereditary component.
On her award-winning blog, “Bipolar Burble”, Natasha Tracy, author of off-label: an unbalanced look at a bipolar life, explains, “I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 17 years ago and, yet, I still can’t accept the fact that bipolar makes me sick on a daily basis. When the bipolar symptoms come, my natural inclination is to deny them, or at least deny that they are caused by a brain illness. I want to think to myself that I’m just having a bad day or I didn’t sleep well last night or I’m coming down with something. I want to think that something normal and transient is causing my symptoms. I don’t want to think it’s something out of my control and long-lasting. Even with all my experience, my mind still doesn’t want to accept that my bipolar is the thing making me sick.”
In the midst of symptoms it would be easy to say, “I hate my life,” but Tracy has a different approach. Her view illuminates the difficulties of living with the disorder plus contains seeds of acknowledgement and validation, proactive management and collaboration:
The difficulty of living with bipolar is unpredictability. “You never know what the next day, or sometimes even the next hour, will bring. I tend to rapid-cycle and this means my moods can be very unpredictable—hypomanic in the morning and then severe depression in the evening, for example. Or, sometimes, I can go through months of nothing but devastating depression. Not knowing what’s coming or when things will end is extremely challenging.”
There are ways to make life with bipolar easier. “Positive self-talk and self-awareness are very important. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy can help with learning these. We also need to control what we can in our lives to try to regulate mood such as diet and exercise, plus maintaining a routine and getting enough sleep…Medical treatment is critical.”
Caregivers can help. “It’s critical to know the facts about bipolar disorder. Also it’s great if [caregivers] can take over small, but important, things in the life of the person with bipolar…Can the caregiver drive to psychiatric appointments? Can the caregiver make a healthy meal sometimes? Can the caregiver pick up medications at the pharmacy? These small things can make life easier for everyone.”
From Tracy’s view, education about the disorder is crucial for the general public, too. She points out that bipolar patients are not angry or violent. They can become agitated, but it’s important to remember that each bipolar patient is unique. While symptoms can be generalized individuals cannot.
“We are people first, not bipolar,” Tracy reminds. “I am a full-fledged human being with wants, needs, desires, fears, great attributes, not-so-great attributes and so much more and that has nothing to do with bipolar and everything to do with me as a person. We deserve to be treated with the same compassion and respect as anyone else…bipolar is just a piece of us, it is not what defines us.”