I’ve been asked by a couple of people if I would write a comment oto an article by Robin Lee that appeared in the Huffington Post UK entitled, “Bipolar…. My Arse.” The article starts out like this:
“I shouted at you… because I’m Bipolar.”
“I murdered my kids… because I’m Bipolar.”
“I forgot to pay the gas bill… because I’m Bipolar.”
“I can’t help it… I’m Bipolar.”
All of the above statements are ridiculous, and all were used recently. I heard or read them. Being Bipolar is the latest must-have personality accessory. Robin Lee, Huffington Post UK, 19/09/2011
As most people reading this will be only too aware, forgetting to pay the gas bill, if you really do have bipolar, is not at all “ridiculous”. Being too depressed think about anything at all except whether and how to stay alive, or too (hypo)manic to be interested in domestic details, is totally consistent with having bipolar disorder. Similarly, most bipolar people have probably shouted at someone close to them in an irritated “up” phase or a despairing “low”. Murdering someone…. well, that’s rather more extreme, but I have no doubt at all that there are mentally disordered offenders in the prison or secure hospital system who committed grave deeds when very unwell with extreme depression, mania or psychosis. Sometimes, we do things we shouldn’t when we’re in the midst of an episode. Sometimes, especially if our treatment’s not going well, we can’t help it.
The trouble is, I don’t believe for a moment that most of the people that Lee is complaining about actually have bipolar. Lee says that he is tired of people employing “a medically recognised excuse for being mardy now and then [and] wanting to deny responsibility for their questionable behaviour.” He believes that saying, “I have bipolar!” has become “the modern day adults’ equivalent of crying after getting caught stealing sweets on the way to school.” He likens over-diagnosis of the condition to over-prescription of benzodiazapines and hopes that “lazy diagnosis of bipolar disorder” will be dealt with by the medical profession in the same way. What he doesn’t do is present any evidence that the people he is talking to or reading about have actually been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at all.
Just as people say that they are “depressed” in circumstances where they are in fact experiencing minimal, transient low mood, it seems like people are starting to say that they are “bipolar” when they are nothing of the sort. Try doing a quick Twitter search for tweets featuring the word “bipolar”; here’s some I found earlier. I promise you all of these are genuine; I’ve removed the names to protect the guilty, but left the spelling and grammar as found:
“I dont care what anyone says everybody BIPOLAR one min u happy next thing you wanna kill somebody”
“I just realized how bipolar I am, cause just a minute ago I was pissed off now I’m the happiest person ever.”
“Feeling real Bipolar-ish right Now.”
“One minute you’re calling me ugly and the next your being all apologetic and calling me ‘babe’… that’s a serious case of bipolar mate!”
“I think I’m bipolar, I love you then I hate you.”
“I’m bipolar. There’s no real reasoning behind my demeanor sometimes.”
“WAA . Bipolar LOL . ONE MOMENT SOUR ONE MOMENT SWEET . CRAZY LEMON .”
“When I see a hobo w/ window cleaner, I secretly hope they don’t offer to wash my car but then I’m offended when they don’t ask. How bipolar.”
“I swear I’m bipolar this week”
“I have not been bipolar for 48hours #progress”
These quotes tell us a lot about how people are using the term in a non-clinical way. “Bipolar” is now being used to identify the unreasonableness of others, especially those who are inexplicably changeable or fickle (there were also lots of references to women [by men] and weather being “bipolar” in my sample; I didn’t bother to share, because they’re all pretty much the same). People are labelling themselves “bipolar” if they have very rapid mood changes, even if their moods are not at all outside the normal range (e.g. “pissed off” to happy, rather than despairing to elated). They’re also using the term to describe holding two contrary/opposing thoughts or feelings about something, which would be better described as being conflicted or ambivalent. It’s interesting to note that “being bipolar” is perceived as a state that people can move in and out of, sometimes through effort of will (like “being high maintenance”). There is nothing at all out of the ordinary about these people’s experiences, but they are choosing to label it as mental disorder.
People using the term in that way shouldn’t be surprised if Robin Lee sees them as “hypochondriacs and arseholes”. Lee says that when manic depression became bipolar disorder, it also became “the dream diagnosis” for this kind of attention-seeking person. But here’s where Lee has missed the point again: it’s not a “dream diagnosis”, because in many cases where it’s being used to justify behaviour, it’s not a diagnosis at all. It’s just plucking a word out of the media soup, based on a very hazy understanding of what it entails, and applying it to yourself anyway. People do it with all kinds of mental health conditions. They say stuff like, “I lost my glasses again, I think I have early onset Alzheimer’s!” or “Sorry, I just re-packed the suitcase, I’m a bit OCD about how the shirts are folded”. It’s true that bipolar is seen as a little more glamorous than some disorders, partly thanks to its association with a number of famous and creative names. Among the general public, it certainly has more of a cachet to it than, say, schizo-affective disorder. In using “bipolar” loosely, people are picking up on the changeability of the condition, while having little or no understanding of the key facts about the disorder. There is an evident lack of knowlegde of the depths and heights of mood in true bipolar; of the fact that most people’s mood phases last weeks or months, not minutes or hours; and of the fact that most bipolar people require major drug treatment in order to live anything like a normal life.
Lee expresses concern that people with serious mental health problems “now have to wait in a queue behind people who simply need to impart a reason to their friend as to why they lost their rag at a taxi rank during her hen night.” Well, I don’t know about you, but last time I was up at the Community Mental Health Team, I failed to notice hoards of normals queuing up to get “bipolar” entered on their psychiatric file as this season’s must have diagnosis. Most of the people waiting to see the psychiatrist looked… well, pretty mentally unwell, actually.
Here’s my suggestion, brought to you courtesy of Bipolar Awareness Week. Next time someone tells Robin Lee that they’ve behaved badly because they have bipolar disorder, why doesn’t he ask them when they were diagnosed? If the answer’s, “Oh, I haven’t, but I’m very creative and volatile” or “last year, when I did a questionnaire on the internet”, then that person is misusing the word and doing a disservice to the 1% of people who are struggling with a chronic, debilitating illness. Maybe Lee could do the bipolar community a favour, and tell them so.