5 Myths About Living with Bipolar — Stop Assuming – Bipolar Burble Blog

There are many myths about what it is like to live with bipolar disorder. People constantly make assumptions about this based on media representations, but life is not a movie or a news report. Living with bipolar disorder is complex and varied, and what happens to some is not necessarily common to all. So let’s dispel some of the myths about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and encourage people to stop making uneducated assumptions.

Living with Bipolar Myth #1: We Experience Violent Outbursts

The media loves to mention that a person has bipolar disorder when there is a violent incident. This convinces people that people with bipolar disorder are violent. This is rarely the case.

While people with bipolar disorder are more likely than the average person to be violent, this is primarily the case when it comes to a comorbid substance use disorder or personality disorder. For example, the 2001-2002 NESARC study found that while 0.66% of the population without a psychiatric diagnosis exhibited aggressive behavior, those without comorbidity (i.e., an additional illness such as a substance use disorder or a personality disorder) and bipolar type I had a rate of 2.52%, and those without comorbidity and bipolar type II had a rate of 5.12%. These numbers are high compared to the general population without a diagnosis, it is true, but they are still very, very low. Saying that people with bipolar disorder are violent is radically incorrect.

Living with Bipolar Myth #2: We Repeatedly Experience Radical Mood Swings

Once again, thanks to movies and television, people are under the impression that people with bipolar disorder will go from one mood to another in the blink of an eye. This is not true. Most mood episodes in bipolar disorder last weeks to months (if untreated). Additionally, most people with bipolar disorder experience fewer than four mood episodes per year. There is a minority of people who experience rapid cycling bipolar disorder (more than three episodes per year), but even those people experience moods that typically last days to weeks. The 12-month prevalence of rapid cycling bipolar disorder was found to be 0.3% in a 2010 study.

Living with bipolar myth #3: We are all addicts

While it is true that substance use disorders are common in people with bipolar disorder, it is still not true for everyone. In surveys between 1990 and 2015, substance use disorders were found to be present in more than 30% of people with bipolar disorder in the community and 40% of people in clinical settings. (For comparison, it is about 16.5% of the US population aged 12 and older.) That certainly makes it common (even in people without bipolar disorder), but it doesn’t make it universal. It is unfair to assume that a person has a substance use disorder just because he has bipolar disorder when more than half of us do not have it.

Living with bipolar myth #4: We exhibit antisocial behaviors such as deception and a lack of guilt and empathy

Antisocial behaviors are not usually associated with bipolar disorder and are not listed as diagnostic symptoms. Antisocial behaviors are typically associated with antisocial personality disorder. A person can have both antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder, but this is only true for about 4.1% of people with bipolar disorder. This means that the vast majority of us are stumbling through life like everyone else. (This means that sometimes people with bipolar disorder do things like lie, just like everyone else.)

Living with bipolar myth #5: We are all the same

I constantly encounter people who have had a bad experience with a person with bipolar disorder, and therefore I assume they would have a bad experience with anyone with bipolar disorder. This is simply not true. While there are similarities to people with bipolar disorder (we all have a brain disorder), most of who we are is unique. Yes, we experience high moods like mania or hypomania and low moods like depression; those are the similarities, but other things are unique to us. Some of us like chocolate, others vanilla. Some of us would hold a door open for a little old lady; Some of us wouldn’t. Some of us are idiots, some of us aren’t. Those things have nothing to do with our bipolar disorder; they are about us. We can’t blame everything on bipolar disorder, and neither can you. We deserve to be treated as individuals, just like you.

What it’s like for all of us to live with bipolar disorder

When I talk about living with bipolar disorder, the fact is that it is different for everyone, even when it comes to the experience of symptoms. I am an expert in bipolar disorder; I’ve been writing professionally about this for 14 years and I’ve lived with bipolar disorder for 26 years and even I can’t tell you what living with bipolar disorder is like for any individual. Bipolar disorder is a very varied illness. The only way to know how a person with bipolar disorder lives is to ask them.

Image: © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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