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The SANE Blog

Bipolar disorder: No two experiences are the same

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IMG_618_20230329-230259_1 Holly, SANE Peer Ambassador

If you've seen people diagnosed with bipolar disorder on the news, or in a movie, you might have an idea of what bipolar disorder involves. But did you know that there are different types of bipolar disorder, and it affects people in different ways? 

This World Bipolar Day (March 30 2023), we’re focusing on the unique experiences of three people living with bipolar disorder – Matt, Holly and Alice. We talked to them about what they think is important for people to know about bipolar disorder. 

There’s more than one type of bipolar disorder 

All types of bipolar disorder have some similar features. This includes extreme mood changes, including periods of mania or hypomania (feeling unusually elevated, energetic, or irritable) and periods of depression (feeling sad, fatigued, and lacking motivation and energy).  

There are different types of bipolar disorder. Some people experience the type known as bipolar I. Bipolar I involves at least one episode of mania. There’s also bipolar II, which involves at least one episode of hypomania. Hypomania is similar to mania, but doesn’t last as long, and is less severe. Then there are diagnoses like cyclothymic disorder, which involves chronic, fluctuating mood changes, and some symptoms of hypomania.   

SANE Peer Ambassador, Holly says: “We aren't swinging from one mood to the other multiple times a day. That's not bipolar. Bipolar mood swings are much more drawn out ...  It's really frustrating seeing people describe us as hot and cold, moody or unpredictable, because it's just not like that.”  

But even so, it can take time to figure out the right diagnosis. Plus, not everyone with bipolar I, bipolar II, or cyclothymic disorder will have the same experiences. How long the symptoms of bipolar disorder last, how often they occur, and how intense they are, varies a lot from one person to another. For example, many people find that their depressive episodes are much longer lasting than mania and hypomania, and can be more challenging to manage. 

“A diagnosis of bipolar isn't always quick, especially if it's mixed with other diagnoses. Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) for example have several similarities and it was difficult to tease out whether or not my symptoms were from an existing BPD diagnosis or a new bipolar diagnosis,” Holly says. 

Bipolar disorder is different for everyone  

Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition, but it doesn’t impact everyone in the same way.  

SANE Peer Ambassador, Matt, has been living with bipolar disorder for over two decades. He manages it well, though he has found that his mental illness affects his cognitive function at times and his stress levels.  

"I maybe haven’t taken on higher positions because I know that I might find that more stressful, and because of my condition it’s better that I stay within that realm,” he says.  

Overall, Matt wants to highlight that people with bipolar disorder can live fulfilling lives: 

“Having a mental illness does not mean it’s a life sentence for a person. People can still do so much with their lives, there’s many people that still work, have relationships, study. They still have hobbies and interests, achieve goals and live fulfilling lives.”  

Holly describes their experience as episodic, meaning there are times when they are relatively well and times then where they have to actively manage their mental health. At times, their symptoms have affected their ability to study, work, and go about their day.  

“My everyday tasks like hygiene, cleaning the house, doing laundry, those sort of things are really impacted,” Holly says. At times they have had hospital stays to manage their symptoms and wellbeing.  

Holly works part-time as a physiotherapist and finds their lived experience to be a strength in the workplace.  

"I see a lot of patients and a lot of them have mental health issues as well so having had my own experience of mental illness means that I am able to understand, work with them and give that confidence that I know what’s going on.” 

It’s possible to live well with bipolar disorder 

There’s no one pathway to recovery for people living with bipolar disorder. Everyone needs to find their own combination of things that work. Check out our guide for more information. 

Matt, Holly and Alice mention a range of strategies they use to keep well – such as medication, looking after their sleep and getting enough exercise, and regularly touching base with mental health professionals. This also means looking out for early warning signs, like not needing as much sleep as usual (which can be a sign of mania or hypomania). 

Alice says she wants people to know that bipolar is just a label for a condition. “Like diabetes, you have to manage it, monitor your highs and lows and just notice if there are any extra stressors going on in your life and talk about it with people that you really trust.” 

Matt says early intervention is important. “It’s about seeking that early help, assistance and good supports - it’s crucial to staying well and working through your own recovery journey. The most important thing with your recovery is that there is that hope that it’s going to get better, that there’s going to be a better day not far around the corner.” 

Holly also has an important reminder for people living with bipolar disorder: “it’s not something to be ashamed of.”  

Click here to read about other people’s experiences with bipolar, or contact 1800 187 263 to chat with a SANE counsellor or peer support worker, or connect with others going through something similar at SANE Forums.

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