"So he just has mood swings, right?" says another person after I tell them my dad is bipolar. I bite my tongue, trying my hardest not to explain how the disorder is so much more than ups and downs. Conversation over, I'm left discouraged and frustrated. With one out of every 100 people in the UK diagnosed as being bipolar and with over 2.4 percent of individuals diagnosed worldwide, why is the disorder still so widely misunderstood?
I guess I can't blame those unaffected by it. As with many disorders, the bipolar spectrum is extremely vast - ranging from depression and mild forms of mania to strong suicidal thoughts and delusions. With an unfathomable range of symptoms and severities, it's no wonder people who aren't exposed to bipolar struggle in recognising the different forms it can take.
I remember sitting in a Psychology class learning about it (though with the amount of therapists, doctors and specialists our family had seen and spoken to up to this point, I already felt like an expert). Our teacher quizzed the class, asking "What is bipolar?" Peers raised their hands, "Chemical imbalance in the brain - an imbalance of neurotransmitters and the brain not releasing enough serotonin." No one could deny that they knew the textbook definition. And yet, when it came to meeting my dad, to them, he was simply a bit strange, talkative and quirky - but definitely not bipolar.
His dynamic energy and intensity have often been able to camouflage his illness when amongst friends and extended family. They find it difficult therefore, to believe that such a charming man could have horrific explosive outbursts. However, since he was diagnosed in 1997, borderline personality disorder and narcissism have been added to his medical chart. And, despite his long list of daily medications, narcissism remains untreatable.
Bipolar sufferers commonly target those closest to them, and so narcissistic feelings of grandiosity, power and self-importance make our everyday conversations almost impossible to engage in. Unable to ever take fault, my dad is an expert at the ‘blame game', no matter how irrational or illogical his claims. When I was around seven years old, my dad mentioned that he would love to visit his dad's grave (his father passed before I was born), but claimed he never could because "Katy didn't want to”. Looking back, I remember my young mind trying to rationalise, wondering what I had said to make him think that I felt that way. Now as an adult, I understand that, incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions, everything (big or small) must be someone else's error.
It’s the covert statements that slowly start to erode emotions, especially since they're all but translucent to outsiders. Perhaps sceptics should have witnessed him pre-medication, screaming at my mum and me whilst I hid behind furniture, over literal spilt milk, rapidly growing in intensity with every word. As thankful as I am that these extreme outbursts are irregular with the help of medication - and that he takes his medication, as many with bipolar often refuse due to an inability to admit they are ill - they still surface.
So, what is the solution? I don't think there is one simple answer. Based on the medical professionals my family has seen over the years, a mixture of mood-stabilisers, antidepressants and antipsychotics are the most popular forms of treatment. Psychotherapy is also said to be extremely effective. As bipolar strongly affects more than the diagnosed individual, it's imperative that family members also seek help where needed.
My story is one of many, but the more we discuss bipolar, the more we'll realise just how many of us are impacted – directly or indirectly - by the disorder.
Words: Katy Shields