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In Their Shoes: Understanding What Bipolar Disorder Feels Like

Bipolar disorder is a confusing condition, especially for someone viewing it from the outside. If you have a friend or relative living with bipolar, this person may be reluctant to share how they feel. Because this can make it hard to know how the illness affects them, reading first-hand accounts of other people living with bipolar can help you understand the condition from their perspective.

Healthline talked to a 30-year-old man from California about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. He explained he doesn’t take medications, but prefers exercise, therapy, and nutritional supplements to help manage his condition.

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Here, in his own words, is what it feels like to live with bipolar disorder. At his request, we’ve withheld his name. It should also be noted that this represents one person’s experience. Other people with the same disorder may have vastly different experiences.

Bipolar mania

To outsiders looking in, bipolar mania comes in many forms. During these emotional highs, your friend or relative may become full of energy and overly excited about life. Mania can be mild, moderate, or severe, so you may not always link their happiness and elation with a mood disorder. Sometimes, all you see is a fun, optimistic, and upbeat person — the life of the party. But other times, you may notice erratic behaviors with their joyful mood.

This person may become more talkative, to the point where others can’t get a word in. They may also speak fast, or come off as impulsive and easily distracted. While this may be confusing for you, this can be a great time for people living with bipolar.

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Here is how this young man describes his mania episodes…

The mania part is awesome. I have tons of energy and don’t want to stop.

The best part of mania is that I’m so optimistic about everything. You could crash a car through my house and I’d reply, “What a great time to build something new!” I’m my most creative during this process, so I’m doing as much as possible to capitalize on it. Artistic or constructive, I’m up for anything.

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I have the most fun running around and entertaining people, making them laugh, and acting like a big clown. I get a lot of satisfaction from the laughs and smiles I can get out of people. It makes me feel invincible.

Every morning I wake up ready to go, even if I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I don’t really need that much sleep, so I just go and go and do so much. I see all my friends, have a blast, get everything done on my to-do list, and more.

And do I talk. I’m all over the place, dominating every conversation. I’ve been told I talk too fast and switch topics so quickly that it’s hard for others to keep up with me. Sometimes I can’t keep up with myself.

Unfortunately, this is when I go out more, spend all my money, and drink too much. I’ve been in a few fistfights during my mania, but it’s not because I was really angry. Getting into a fight at a bar with some dude twice my size is exhilarating. I know it’s destructive, but it’s the greatest form of entertainment because it’s raw, tough, and totally dangerous. I’ve yet to be seriously hurt in one of these fights, so I keep escalating each time. It’s like a game to me.

An upside to the mania is that my sex drive goes haywire. I crave a lot more sex during this period and sometimes it’s a bit much for my girlfriend.

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During my mania, I feel like a god. I feel like I can do anything, so my self-worth skyrockets. I can’t explain it, but when the mania burns out I’ve got nothing left. Without the highs of mania, I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the lows of depression.

Bipolar depression

Mania isn't the only symptom of bipolar. People living with this disorder also have periods of depression and alternate between extreme highs and extreme lows. You may be all too familiar with these extremes and unpredictable moods.

Your relative could be laughing and having a great time one day. And then the next day, they disconnect from the family and isolate themselves for no apparent reason. They may have little to say, become easily irritated, or lose motivation, which can be a difficult time for everyone. Your relative may also simply revert to a normal amount of energy without symptoms of depression. They can remain like this until the next manic episode occurs.

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Here is how this young man describes his bipolar depression…

When I’m depressed, I want to be left alone. It’s not that I want to be by myself; I want everyone to disappear. I don’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, or do anything. It’s like no matter what I do, people are telling me I’m doing something wrong. So, the easiest way to feel better is to hide.

Seeing all those people carrying on, living their happy little lives is an annoying reminder of my bipolar disorder and how I’ll never have that kind of stability. What’s worse is hearing all the people I “entertain” while in my mania talk about how quiet I am and that I’m not entertaining. Do they try to cheer me up, or do something to make me laugh? No. They just want their clown back. It’s annoying.

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No matter what it is — work, hanging out with friends, exercise — I don’t enjoy things because the smallest details annoy me. If friends invite me out, I imagine waiting for the bus, being crammed against angry people, waiting in lines, and all the other negative things. I think of every possible downside of something, which leaves me dreading the idea of doing anything.

I turn into this grumpy old man. I’ve contemplated suicide and have attempted it once before.

But the more I understand the problem, the more I know that the depression is temporary and I don’t always think clearly during it. That self-reminder helps me from doing anything stupid.

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When I think about the future, I don’t like what I see. I can only envision more troubles, endless work, and an endless string of letdowns.

Here is how this young man describes ‘the middle’…

This is what I imagine it’s like for everyone else — you know, normal people. I wake up in the morning and I feel fine. I don’t dread going about my day. I go to work, get things done, and have plenty of energy throughout the day.

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I can roll with the punches the average day gives me. I’m not freaking out over small problems, I enjoy the little things, and I’m not loathing the future.

I feel normal and it’s how I see myself. I’m not some lunatic running around or some mopey, lazy slug.

I honestly wish I could stay in this mindset all the time, but I know that won’t happen. I’ve accepted that my moods will change on their own, so I enjoy the calm more when it’s there.

Bipolar disorder in children

Keep in mind that bipolar symptoms in children differ from symptoms in adults. Symptoms in children may include:

  • periods of restlessness
  • aggression
  • irritability
  • trouble concentrating
  • hyperactivity
  • a change in sleep pattern

These behaviors don’t always point to bipolar, but you should see a doctor if your child’s moods become episodic and frequently shift between happiness and sadness.

Coping when a loved one has bipolar

Bipolar is unpredictable. Take it one day at a time. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s completely normal to worry about your relative during their mania and depressive episodes. You may fear them making reckless or irresponsible decisions, and harming themselves during an emotional low.

Bipolar can be a lifelong struggle. The more you learn about the condition, the easier it'll be to offer support. People with bipolar cannot control their emotions or moods. Remember, bipolar isn’t a sign of weakness. It is a mental illness. Avoid insensitive or negative comments like “snap out of it,” or “get a grip.”

Let them know you’re there to help in any way you can. Offering practical assistance can reduce their stress level and help keep their emotions under control. For example, help out around their house or offer to research local support groups for them.

Takeaway

Bipolar is a real disease that can have a huge impact on friends and loved ones. There’s no cure, but treatment may help control symptoms. These include mood stabilizers, and for some people, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, exercise, and nutrition. Some people also benefit from counseling and support groups.

If you have bipolar, talk with your doctor to discuss a treatment plan.

Article resources
  • Bipolar disorder in children and teens. (2015).
  • Segal J., et al. (2017). Helping someone with bipolar disorder.  
  • When you’re married to someone with bipolar disorder. (n.d.).
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