Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Bipolar Misunderstanding

I have been thoroughly disappointed a number of times by the media's representation of the "mentally ill". Not only does the media show a one-sided, inconsistent view of people who deal with (I refuse to say "suffer from" because not all of us suffer) Bipolar Disorder, but so do real life individuals, doctors, and sadly even some people with mental illnesses. I am writing this because of my own recent experiences, and a general frustration with the ignorance about this topic.

Bipolar Disorder (aka, manic depressive illness), according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is a medical illness that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, and functioning. Over 10 million men and women in America have Bipolar Disorder (NAMI, 2012). For more information on what Bipolar Disorder is, and facts about the illness, please visit www.nami.org.

On the CW's 90210, one of the main characters, Silver, suffers quite horribly from Bipolar Disorder. The writers initially portrayed her (when they wrote in the disorder) as a psychotic person who could not be trusted, and whose feelings and behavior could not be distinguished as either rational, or related to the disease. Their portrayal of the disease in the beginning was rather insulting, because it basically advertises to the world that this is what you should expect from a person with this disorder. While it can be true that people living with Bipolar Disorder are capable of unspeakable things, there is another side. Sadly, the show's writers failed to emphasize fully how Silver was able to grab onto a life of normalcy. She took meds. Yes, there have been episodes that show her taking medication, and even an episode in which one of the characters switched her medication for a placebo. She went wildly maniacal, which can certainly happen, but again-- what else is there? There is counseling. There are coping methods. AND, no matter what medication a person with Bipolar Disorder is on, they still experience ups and downs... only much less severely. Where are these normal ups and downs in the fictional Silver's case? You see, the only instances when the writers involve Silver's disorder are when she suffers from some version of psychosis, as related of course to Bipolar Disorder. It is my opinion that, to be more accurate, they should mention how she copes with her illness on a "normal person" basis. I understand this is a dramatic television show aimed at a fairly young audience (of which I am admittedly a member), but including this integral piece of the Bipolar puzzle will certainly not take away from the drama of the disease itself. Just a thought.

Now, 90210 is certainly not the only media outlet where I believe this disease has been inaccurately depicted. Most of us have read a newspaper in our lifetime, or watched the television news, and I cannot say in confidence how many times I have seen a person with Bipolar Disorder shooting up a convenience store, church, or school campus. The problem is not the inaccuracy of the reporting. Usually, these news outlets report what they are told is accurate information. What they fail to include in their report is why the alleged culprit was in their state of Bipolar insanity. Usually, I see that this happens because a person decides to stop taking their meds, as has been the case on 90210. It may seem like a small piece of information, neither here nor there, but that is just not the case. The general public is simply not informed adecquately enough about mental illness to know that not all people with this illness will murder other people, or fly into random psychosis. These things are possible under extreme circumstances, but it is unfair to say it should be expected.

I have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder for over 4 years now, and have been on the same medication for almost as long. I have experienced a major life-shift because of the stability that counseling and medication brought me. I was in counseling for almost four years, when my counselor finally told me that she felt without a doubt that I was ready to handle my illness and my life responsibly, on my own. I believe she was absolutely right. I know how to recognize a manic episode when it begins, as well as a depressive episode. I suffer mostly from manias, which in layman terms might be called extreme anxiety. I listen to the people around me for signs, and I take a look daily at how I am handling situations. I have never gone off my medication, because I know it works. Why would I chance that? The crazy erratic behavior came to a screeching halt when I started taking my medication, and there was nothing more relieving than that. Everyone around me benefitted as much as I did, if not more.

I recently went to a doctor's office, concerned about a cluster of symptoms I had been having that seemed to be associated with a neurological problem. I realized that this was a possibility, not a sure thing. I simply wanted to rule things out, as there are many genetic ailments that run in my family. Of course, as anyone would be, I was quite nervous. I was unsure that I wanted to know if something serious was wrong, but I knew I needed to have that answer so I could sleep at night. The lack of an answer for a few months added to my stress, and I had additional physical symptoms as a result. I was aware that these symptoms were probably not associated with those I had gone to the doctor for intially. Still, I experienced them. At one point, my husband was gone on a military exercise, so there was no one in my house but me and my little girl and baby boy. I called 9-1-1 because I could not breathe, I had chest pain, and I was very hot. This came without any physical activity, as I was in bed falling asleep. I was embarrassed to have had to, but I felt like I had to (thank you for your selflessness Lizzie). I realized this situation was probably associated with my stress level, but I was pretty scared nonetheless. The EMT's confirmed what I had thought, and I went to my doctor as a formality the next day. My doctor then prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication to add to my Bipolar med (which had worked on its own for four years), and referred me to another psychologist. I will not be taking the new med, until I speak with a psychologist I trust. I do, for the record, believe I should talk to a professional here in our new town (we have moved away from my old counselor), to ensure that I am on the right track. The doctor told me he would could run a bunch of tests, but would not find anything because it was all in my head. I was at a loss for words. I felt completely diminished. I realized then that he made his mind up about me the first time I came in. It explained so much. In any case, the point here is that I knew I was being treated with "kid gloves" because I am apparently a crazy person. Again, I was perfectly aware that I was not dying, and was not assuming anything awful would come of this episode. I knew very well that I had been under a lot of stress, and my body reacted the same as thousands of people without mental illnesses would react. I absolutely do not believe that adding MORE prescription medication is ever the answer, when all a person needs sometimes is someone to talk to, and a very deep breath. Needless to say, it was at this time that I was aware even medical professionals lack an understanding of this complex disorder. And of course, I will be getting a new doctor. Note: I had an MRI, and nothing has been found. Good news :) Still, the symptoms are there. I am not a doctor, and just plan to wait it out to see what the future holds. I can sleep knowing all is clear for now.

Bipolar Disorder can be a selfish disorder at times, if I can get away with saying that. For instance, when someone is stable and "plays with fire" by getting off of a medication that is working for them, they put themselves and the people closest to them at risk of many things. Often, they become a physical threat to themselves and others, because Bipolar Disorder already consists of a chemical imbalance in the brain and when combined with the chemistry of coming off of a medication, can have devastating consequences. I know this from personal experience as well as by listening to others in an anonymous support group I have attended.

There was an incident once when I could not get my prescription filled in time, and it was so early in my illness that I did not realize what that could mean. It was three days before my prescription was finally filled. The night before I picked it up, I flew out of control, screaming hysterically, and I wanted to commit suicide. I did not want to die, but something inside of me snapped and it felt like I was arguing with myself. "I have to die" vs. "CALM DOWN!"... were the thoughts racing through my wild mind. I was on fire inside, radiating with passion and a violence that was desperate to escape. Lucky for me, I had my husband there to hold me as I rocked back and forth, not understanding what was happening to me.

This was a situation related directly to missing my medication for three straight days. Like an addict going through withdrawls, my brain had become dependent on the medication for stability, and when I did not have it my brain went haywire.I have called my refills in at least two weeks early, every time since then. I just cannot take that chance again.

My example is one many who experience Bipolar Disorder can relate to. The reason I am so offended by the incomplete depiction of Bipolar Disorder is because not all of us get off our meds. Not all of us commit crimes, lose our families, become addicts, or are incapable of holding down a job. While there are too many cases of mental illness-related suicides, not all of us who have this illness will take our own lives. You hear about it happening, but you don't hear about it not happening. I am a full time student, a wife, a mother, and I have many interests outside of the main roles I play. I am aware of what is real and what is not. I have the ability to use logic when dealing with life, and I am only human so I can sometimes be impulsive. I find impulsivity, reactivity, and empassioned anger are all signs of the beginning of a manic cycle. These are things that happen mildly, and in miniscule doses, before a full-blown episode might occur. Because of my medication and my "training" with my counselor, I am able to slow down and recognize these things are happening so that I can take action. I write, breathe, and soothe myself with positive statements. I ask questions, and I talk about what I am feeling. I apologize when I am wrong, because the people I love appreciate my awareness that my illness affects them too.

I only wish the rest of the world could understand this, with empathy and compassion. I wish the world could see people who live with this illness the same way we have learned to see, or not to see, another person's skin color. It would be nice if the presence of this illness in my life did not warrant speculation as to the validity of my thoughts, questions, and feelings. But that is not the way the world works yet. If only the media was aware... I believe they would take action and actually help.


  1. Just a quick side-note: I am not saying the media depicts ALL things inaccurately, but that this in particular is not being portrayed properly. I just think this needs the right kind of attention, and some focus on the positive coping people do. Like those with cancer, AIDS, and other illnesses.

  2. Very well put. Another thing to keep in mind is that mental illness is a generalized tern that can mean a whole array of diagnosis but the most common is bipolar. It is sad how the illness is portrayed in the media and how people with it are viewed by society.

    1. Thank you Shan! Hopefully things change in the bigger scheme of things, and of course I wouldn't expect that on the entertainment end. However, I would sure hope that at some point the REAL news programs or maybe even "talk shows" might call some attention to the inaccuracy of this. Still, it's all entertainment. Maybe I should just get all the people I know a subscription to Psychology Today! :) haha

  3. These are great points, Cerra! Something I have learned about all types of news and entertainment is that they are based on telling stories, and whatever makes the best story is usually what gets told. Even in news, complete objectivity and fairness is impossible (because life itself has no sense of fairness; that is a construct that we try to impose on it as part of our schemes to process the information of the world so it makes sense to us). And certainly on entertainment shows. I am sure I don't need to tell you that looking for accurate representations of just about any recognizable human characteristics on 90210, for example, is a fool's errand. I would just as soon look for scientific accuracy out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Those shows tailor to their audiences, and the audiences want sensational content (just look at what they did to Marcia Cross' character from the original Melrose Place; now *there* was a whacked-out version of mental illness). But these shows want to give the audience what the audience seems to indicate it wants. For 90210, that is salacious content, excitement, and stereotypes that reinforce, rather than challenge, preconceived ideas (because the culture of "cool," which I believe we have now in spades, yields audiences who want to believe, in general, that they have things all figured out, and don't want to learn new things).

    The big problem comes not from the content of an entertainment show like 90210, but from the fact that so many people take that to be a true statement about how things are without bothering to question whether the fact that it is an entertainment program makes it an inaccurate representation of how things are. It is the same problem as with campaign ads. So many complain about the money in political campaigns, and how it buys votes because it buys TV time. But if the majority of viewers could critically think about what they were seeing, the ads and the money would lose a lot of their power without need for curbing campaign contributions. What I mean to say is, there is a real dearth of critical thinking in this nation, questioning the sources of information and whether that information may be doubtful because of its source. If we could teach more of that, then just letting entertainment be entertainment, without worrying that it would define the conversation about what something like bipolar disorder is, would be much easier.

    And then there are just jerks, like that doctor, who should really know better. Not much more to say about that except that doctors can be a-holes, too.

    I am really glad you are able to write so passionately and well about these things that mean so much to you. And I very much look forward to reading more :).

    1. Thanks for these thoughts Steve! I totally agree on the idea that we should not expect any kind of rational accurate portrayal of anything from entertainment shows like 90210. I think it was a good thing to point out for sure-- hoping of course I didn't focus too much on that in my entry. It's easy to go off on tangents sometimes. And how true how true that the viewers watch for the sole purpose sometimes of NOT having to think or learn. Therein lies the key to their success! And how susceptible we are to being influenced by the flashiest and most abundant of political ads is silly... totally silly.