There is no doubt that I’m a sick man.
But no… this time I’m really sick. Traditionally sick. About a week ago I contracted an upper respiratory infection which quickly settled into my chest and became bronchitis. I can’t stop coughing, and my airways have closed almost completely off. I can hardly breathe. I’m wheezing like an old train engine, and it’s difficult to get enough air. It’s a really scary feeling. I watched both my parents die from emphysema; each breath an agonizing struggle. Having the same symptoms scares the hell out of me. I don’t have health insurance, so I put off going to the Doctor as long as I could, but finally gave up last Friday and made an appointment. The first round of antibiotics she prescribed didn’t make a difference, so last night she started me on a different one. Hopefully this one will work, and I’ll start feeling better.
Feeling so bad physically has had a very negative impact on my mood too. I have no energy. I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t want to be around anyone. My thoughts are pessimistic and gloomy. There are medications I have to take in the hopes of improving how I feel, but I resent having to take them. And every one I try that’s ineffective just makes me resent it more. I just want to find a hole that I can crawl into and hide.
Sounds just like a depression, doesn’t it?
And I guess in a way it is. Of course there are situational depressions, where environment or life events bring on sadness, hopelessness and despair. The death of a loved one; a life altering diagnoses like cancer; the loss of a job or financial hardship in general can trigger a depression. Being bipolar however is a different. The brain malfunctions and produces too much or too little of chemicals and hormones that alter mood and behaviors. Dopamine for example has been proven to play a big role in addictions, ADHD, and Schizophrenia as well as ‘physical’ illnesses such as Parkinson’s. It’s a scientific fact that serotonin and Norepinephrine affect how people feel and act. A bacterial infection in my lungs has changed my mood and my perspective. My thinking and behaviors have also been altered by changing chemical levels in my brain. The end result is the same. I feel depressed.
So what’s the difference?
In my opinion there is none. Although of course Bipolar disorder can be influenced by external factors and environment, the root cause is the brain chemistry. Even the circumstantial influences have different impact as a result of the physical makeup of the bipolar brain. There are many people who are raised in unhealthy or disadvantaged homes. That doesn’t mean that they end up unhealthy or disadvantaged. Just because you might have an alcoholic parent doesn’t mean you will be an alcoholic. But the brain function of one who is Bipolar can be more susceptible to the environment, and more likely to develop secondary traits and disorders.
The flip side of that is true too. There are true personality disorders that develop specifically from environment. Certain phobias, obsessions, anti social behaviors, and narcissistic disorders for example can be a result of circumstances and background. In some cases brain chemistry can change as a result of life events. Situational depressions can become clinical depressions if they continue for an extended period of time.
So what’s the point here?
I’ve said over and over that Bipolar Disorder is a physical disease. It’s not just my opinion; it’s based on scientific fact. Yet I continue to get push back and arguments that it’s not physical, but an emotional disease, even to the point of insinuating that it’s a weakness or personality deviation. There are a lot of misconceptions and ignorance about the disease that cause misunderstandings and prejudices. I can’t tell you how many times people pull away, or mock, or even actively attack me when they find out I’m bipolar. It is incurable, but it’s also completely manageable with the right combination of medications and treatments. Okay, I’ll admit that the end result is the same. Behavior and mood is presented emotionally regardless of the source. But it is an important distinction to me that I remember that this is caused by a physical condition. There is no one to blame. It is not a weakness. It can be treated successfully. I am not a failure. I think it’s also important to help understand as a caregiver or anyone who has to interact with someone with this illness. There has been a lot of discussion lately on bipolar relationships, and it is continually a top search engine term on the Internet. The general consensus has been that communication is the most important factor. Open and mutually honest conversations contribute to success; the lack of healthy communication a major cause of failure. And I agree with this 100%. But I think the key element of any conversations is knowledge and acceptance. The more that is understood about this disease, the better able to deal with the symptoms.
I think it’s easy to understand why someone feels bad when they have bronchitis. It may not make it easy to deal with, but it can be equally understandable why someone feels bad when they suffer from being bipolar.
It’s just another illness, after all.