I Have "Bipolar Lite" — And You Could Have It Too

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Know the symptoms so you can get help and be happy.

By Janet Coburn

First, some background.

Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive illness, and many people still know and refer to it that way. The term "bipolar" reflects the concept that there are two extremes to the continuum of mood disorders, and some people swing dramatically from one to the other.

According to this definition, clinical depression by itself is "unipolar" — occupying only one end of the spectrum.

Depression is to ordinary grief or sadness as a broken leg is to a splinter. Depression sucks the life from a person, mutes all emotions except misery, denies any possibility of joy or even contentment, makes life seem meaningless or impossible. This is hell.

Mania is to ordinary happiness as diving off a cliff is to diving off a diving board. Mania brings exhilaration, ambition, confidence, abandonment and invincibility, with no brakes. It is hell on wheels.

Oscillating between the two extremes — that's bipolar disorder, type 1.

It is a very serious illness. Left untreated, it can cause destruction of families, careers and more. It can lead to psychosis or suicide.

The treatments for it are no picnic either. Bipolar disorder that severe often requires hospitalization. If the symptoms can be controlled with medication such as lithium or newer formulations, the patients must have frequent blood tests to assure that the drug is present in the right quantity. Electroshock is also a possibility, especially for deep, drug-resistant depression.

When I was (incorrectly) diagnosed with unipolar depression, I used to wish that I were bipolar, on the theory that at least then I could accomplish something.

Boy, was I wrong about that. Plans made in mania never come to fruition. They are started, rethought, abandoned, exchanged for something grander and ultimately fizzle out when the mania wears off.

My diagnosis actually made some sense at the time, as I never experienced anything like the manic highs. All I got were depressive lows.

This leads us at last to bipolar disorder, type 2.

Some people think of bipolar 2 as "Bipolar Lite." The mood swings are not as extreme, the lows less debilitating, the highs less overwhelming. The person with bipolar 2 stays closer to a baseline of normal mood, but still experiences swings back and forth.

Technically the mini-lows are called dysthymia and the mini-highs are called hypomania. In my case, the lows were just as low as in unipolar depression, but I never got the mini-jags of buoyancy that accompany hypomania. Instead, these feelings, came out sideways — as anxiety.

My brain was still racing with little control, but in a different direction. Instead of elation and purpose, I was beset by worries, fears and catastrophizing.

One of the difficulties with treating bipolar disorder of either type is trying to find a medication or a combination of medications that will level out the person's moods. Usually this requires more than one drug and finding the right mix or cocktail of chemicals usually requires more than one drug. It takes a great deal of trial and error. In the meantime, the mood swings continue.

At this point, my bipolar 2 disorder is fairly well controlled on medication. I still have spells of depression, but now they last at most a week and sometimes just a day or two. Untreated, they could last months or years. I still have anxiety too, but I have the medication I take for that, so that I don't feel like I'm about to jump out of my own skin.

Most of the time I'm fairly high-functioning. I can write, work and earn a living. I have a great marriage and a number of friends, including some who are closer than family to me. I have never been hospitalized, nor have I had electroshock (though that was a near thing).

Before I got my proper diagnosis and treatment, I would have not believed this to be possible. My goal in life was simply to stay out of a psychiatric hospital as long as I could, or at least until I qualified for Social Security disability.

I'm sharing these experiences with you because I believe that mental disorders should not be hidden or viewed with shame and horror, as they have been in the past and sometimes still are.

It's undeniable that there is a stigma associated with having mental illness. Going public with it entails a risk. I've seen the fixed-smile-back-away-slowly reaction. I've seen sudden turn-arounds in my work performance evaluations.

But I've also seen the "Me too!" response.

There is strength in numbers. As more of us who live with psychiatric conditions talk about it and share our stories, the more we build understanding and perhaps encourage those who are roller-coastering to seek treatment.

So that's the nuts and bolts of it: bipolar disorder type 2 is a mental illness. I have it and live with it every day.

I do not go around shooting people or trying to jump off buildings. I take medication for it and know that I will likely have to for the rest of my life. And I'm okay with that. I hope that eventually the rest of the world will be, too.

This article was originally published at BlogHer. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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