- Many people know the basics of bipolar disorder, but they may lack insight into how it actually feels to experience cycles of mania and depression.
- These quotes from memoirs, essays, and celebrity interviews on the bipolar experience can help shed light on what it means to have this mental health disorder.
- These first-person accounts cover bipolar mania, depression, creativity, routine, diagnosis, rapid cycling, stigma, and hope.
- The words of people with firsthand experience of bipolar disorder can help us learn to support each other better through sickness and health.
Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder characterized by extreme fluctuations in mood. These emotional shifts may take place over the course of hours, weeks, or months, and are often accompanied by drastic changes in behavior and functioning.
There are three main types of bipolar disorder. People with bipolar I (type 1 bipolar, formerly known as manic depression) experience episodes of mania, and often major depression. People with bipolar II (type 2 bipolar) experience episodes of hypomania (a lesser mania) and major depression. And people with cyclothymic disorder experience less severe mood swings. Bipolar disorder is a chronic but highly treatable illness that psychiatrists are learning more about every day.
But if you’re here, you probably know most of this already. This medical information is readily available on the Internet. But firsthand experiences of the illness are harder to access. Bipolar experiences can be profound, painful, scary, and exhilarating. They can test the bounds of mental endurance, and push some people to the brink, through no fault of their own. We can all be grateful to the following writers and celebrities living with bipolar disorder who have found words to describe what their condition feels like. For people without bipolar disorder, these quotes may help us find more patience, understanding, and compassion when our loved ones are suffering. For people with bipolar disorder, you may relate to some of these stories–and know that you’re not alone.
What Does Bipolar Mania Feel Like?
Acute mania can be intense to the point of psychosis and the need for psychiatric hospitalization. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), manic episodes last at least one week, while hypomanic episodes last at least four consecutive days. The following first-person accounts attempt to capture the manic experience:
“Remember the first time you were ever on a Ferris wheel? Remember when you got to the very top and just sat there, the entire world at your feet? You felt like you could reach up and grab the sky. Your entire body tingled with the intersection of joy and indestructibility and fearlessness and that good anxious recklessness. So damn excited to be alive at that moment. You could do anything.
Now imagine feeling that every day for a week, or a month, or a few months. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without a break. So that everything you do feels like THE BIGGEST MOST AMAZING THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE IN YOUR LIFE!
The first week or so, it’s great. Until it’s not.”
“A sense of electrical current was part of my own experience of being manic. The sensation that my mind was spinning and overheating would sometimes build to a sensation like an electrical short–a burst of light, a melting, or dissipating–and I’d get a metallic taste in my mouth, like when you lick a battery.”
“I started drinking about one and a half liters of expensive gin a day. It was a way to rein in the mania–but when you are manic, you don’t want it turned off and you don’t know that anything is wrong. It’s like asking someone that has never seen a mirror before to describe what they look like. They just don’t have any perspective. You’re in it. You’re there. That’s it.”
“At first it’s bliss. It’s drunken, heady, intoxicating. It swallows the people we were–not particularly wonderful people, but people who did our best, more or less–and spits out the monsters we are becoming. Our friends despise us. We are an epic. Everything is grand, crashing, brilliant, blinding. It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, and we are a legend in our own minds, and no one outside can fail to see that we are headed for hell, and we won’t listen, we say they don’t understand, we pour more wine, go to the parties, we sparkle, fly all over the country, we’re on an adventure, unstoppable, we’ve found each other and we race through our days like Mr. Toad in his yellow motorcar, with no idea where the brakes are and to hell with it anyway, we are on fire, drunk with something we call love….But new love only lasts so long, and then you crash back into the real people you are, and from as high as we were, it’s a very long fall, and we hit the ground with a thud.”
-Marya Hornbacher, “Madness: A Bipolar Life”
“Our bodies are affected by mania just as much as our minds. While we are manic, we are also experiencing marked physical symptoms. Here’s how it goes for me: My whole body feels like it could take flight. Every cell is on fire, alert and ready to move into action. I tingle all over. I feel light, tall and elegant. I feel agile–like I could contort into any position.
My senses become more in tune. Colors are brighter and more vivid. Music is more interesting and seems to have more depth. I need to touch everything. Textures feel exciting and stimulating.
In mania I am never tired. I’m racing and pacing, never feeling the strain. I have an endless supply of energy and a sexual appetite that would make a teenage boy look like an amateur.”
-Anonymous, from PsychCentral
“It’s an emotional state similar to Oz…full of excitement, color, noise, and speed–an overload of sensory stimulation–whereas the sane state of Kansas is plain and simple, black and white, boring and flat.”
-Andy Behrman, “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania”
“The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people. Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes. Humor and absorption on friends’ faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against–you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind.”
-Kay Redfield Jamison, “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness”
“Manic depression–or bipolar disorder–is like racing up to a clifftop before diving headfirst into a cavity. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the psychic equivalent of an extreme sport. The manic highs–that exhilarating rush to the top of the cliff–make you feel bionic in your hyper-energized capacity for generosity, sexiness and soulfulness. You feel like you have ingested stars and are now glowing from within. It’s unearned confidence-in-extremis–with an emphasis on the con, because you feel cheated once you inevitably crash into that cavity. I sometimes joke that mania is the worst kind of pyramid scheme, one that the bipolar individual doesn’t even know they’re building, only to find out, too late, that they’re also its biggest casualty.”
What Does Bipolar Depression Feel Like?
When someone has bipolar disorder, they can’t count on one mood enduring, no matter how good it feels. An elevated emotional state can leave them vulnerable to crushing, life-threatening depression. This is the point when many people with bipolar first seek help–and when they’re often misdiagnosed with unipolar depression.
“Many people go through depression, and everyone experiences deep sadness at times, but bipolar depression is a war of the mind that people with bipolar I disorder will battle over the course of their lives. You fight battles with depression over the course of weeks, months, and even years but the war will always be there in your life. There will always be battles in my mind. It’s how you limit those battles that truly makes a difference.”
-James Edgar Skye
“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.”
-Anonymous, from Healthline
“I feel like the thing Hollywood gets the most wrong about living with bipolar disorder is that mania is a super power or gift. I’m thinking about artists that created while manic, or Carrie [Claire Danes’s character] on ‘Homeland’ cracking the case because of wild leaps in logic while manic. The idea that the world deserves the results of mania more than those with bipolar disorder deserve safety in their own minds is really [upsetting]. It drives me crazy, this attitude that mania is a gift that justifies the pain of depression. I think it is hard for people to understand that my manias are my most destructive times, both in terms of how it affects my life and my relationships.
I want people to know that bipolar isn’t as ‘big’ as it appears on TV. Manic episodes don’t necessarily mean hopping around the house or harassing people or going ‘crazy.’ And depression associated with bipolar doesn’t necessarily manifest as sadness. For many people, myself included, it’s an unrelenting and insidious apathy.”
What Does Bipolar Cycling Feel Like?
A cycle refers to the period of time when someone with bipolar goes between manic or hypomanic and depressive episodes. Someone with rapid-cycling bipolar experiences four or more episodes within a year.
“As a bipolar woman, I have lived much of my life in a constant state of becoming someone else. The precise term for my disorder is ‘ultraradian rapid cycler,’ which means that without medication I am at the mercy of my own spectacular mood swings: ‘up’ for days (charming, talkative, effusive, funny and productive, but never sleeping and ultimately hard to be around), then ‘down,’ and essentially immobile, for weeks at a time.”
“What we call bipolar is an enormously complex illness, but strip it to its most essential element and what we’re left with can be best described as a ‘cycling illness’….We are talking many cycles, not just one. Cycles within cycles, if you like. Throw any one of them out of whack and there goes your precision timing, your sense of being in control. Then life becomes a mad scramble, like juggling spinning plates. Inevitably, it happens–the plates crash to the floor. But always in a perverse slow motion that gives you just enough time to make the horrible realization–yet once again–that things have slipped away from you. And there you are, alone in the awful bitter aftermath, left to pick up the pieces.”
“I honestly wish more people would ask me what it’s like. Although it is called bipolar disorder, I often think of myself as being ‘tripolar.’ Sometimes I experience mania, sometimes I experience depression, but I also inhabit a unique space in the middle. Being bipolar is like being a seesaw. And I don’t mean that my illness is like sitting on a certain side of the seesaw–I am referring to the seesaw itself. Just as a seesaw is constantly trying to balance the ups and downs of its riders, I have to maintain a balance between my two extreme emotions.”
“For a long time I thought I had a severe sleep disorder, but it wasn’t normal insomnia…I was working and working and working…I was irritable and in constant fear of letting people down. It turns out that I was experiencing a form of mania. Eventually, I would just hit a wall. I guess my depressive episodes were characterized by having very low energy. I would feel so lonely and sad, even guilt that I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing for my career.”
“Call it dysphoric mania, agitated depression, or a mixed state: nobody will understand anyway. Mania and depression at once mean the will to die and the motivation to make it happen. This is why mixed states are the most dangerous periods of mood disorders. Tearfulness and racing thoughts happen. So do agitation and guilt, fatigue and morbidity and dread. Walking late at night, trying to get murdered, happens. Trying to explain a bipolar mixed state is like trying to explain the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God: you just have to take it on faith when I tell you that the poles bend, cross, never snapping.”
-Elissa Washuta, “My Body Is a Book of Rules”
“Bipolar illness, manic depression, manic-depressive illness, manic-depressive psychosis. That’s a nice way of saying you will feel so high that no street drug can compete and you will feel so low that you wish you had been hit by a Mack truck instead.”
-Christine F. Anderson, “Forever Different: A Memoir of One Woman’s Journey Living with Bipolar Disorder”
People with bipolar disorder can successfully manage their illness in the long-term with psychiatric medication like mood stabilizers, psychotherapy to help with emotional regulation, psychosocial support, and healthy routines. This latter element of bipolar management includes the strict maintenance of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms.
“One thing I have learned is everything passes. Good feelings come and go just as quickly as bad feelings. I have had days when I can’t imagine making it through the morning, only to have an incredible day! The days I wake up feeling hopeless and overwhelmed–and they are many–my first step is to shower and eat breakfast. Sometimes, I work during breakfast. Other times, I read the news and sip on my coffee. Other days, I simply sip on my coffee and ask the universe for an intuitive thought or action. Rarely have I gone back to my house to go back to bed. I might drive around for a little bit for scheduled appointments or appointments I wish I had. I do whatever it takes to give myself the opportunity for my mind and body to engage in the day.”
“Exercise is an incredible key to feeling well. But for people with mental illness, taking care of the body is not an automatic thing. The mind is in such chaos, it’s hard to come up with a plan. So, to people like us, it’s more important than ever to follow a regimen.”
“I give them the suggestion: Allow yourself morning. I tell them it means that today may have been a rolling ball of anxiety and trembling, a face wet and slick with tears, but if you can get to morning, if you can allow yourself a new day to encourage a change, then you can get through it. Allow yourself morning.”
-Bassey Ikpi, “I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying: Essays”
Experts are still uncovering the links between creativity and bipolar disorder, but there should be no confusion about whether someone needs to be suffering to create art. Rather, creativity can be a strength when trying to make meaning out of bipolar disorder–in recovery.
“We have the relationship between creativity and mental illness exactly wrong; ‘crazy’ people don’t create great art unless they are getting better. The illusion that someone in early recovery can simply chuck their meds and produce great art has sent many gifted young people over the cliff.”
-Dr. Mark Vonnegut
“Mood, temperament, behavioral and cognitive factors associated with bipolar illness can, in some people, make them more creative by increasing the fluency and originality of their thinking, as well as by increasing risk-taking, ambition, energy, exuberance and a desire to create meaning from suffering and chaos.
It must be emphasized that most creative people do not have a mental illness and most people who have mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, are not unusually creative. It is rather that there is a disproportionate rate of mood disorders, especially bipolar disorder, in creative individuals.”
-Kay Redfield Jamison
What Does Bipolar Stigma Feel Like?
Many individuals with bipolar disorder feel reluctant to share their diagnoses and their stories because of the stigma that’s often still attached to mental illness. The world is full of damaging myths and misinformation about bipolar disorder, but you can also hear brave voices speaking out about the importance of acceptance.
“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of…They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”
-Carrie Fisher, “Wishful Drinking”
“The way the world views those of us with bipolar disorder is a tragedy for both you and I…You miss out on the opportunity of knowing who we are, and we suffer in silence. For centuries, people with mental illness have only been seen as people with a problem, a faulty mind. Although each day is uncertain and the pain can be all-consuming, for some it’s debilitating, we still fight through the storm, and when we shine, it’s like magic. In so many ways, we have had rights taken away from us simply because we are different, and different, in today’s world, means wrong. However, that could not be further from the truth.”
What Does a Bipolar Diagnosis Feel Like?
Research shows that it usually takes 5-10 years for someone with bipolar disorder to be accurately diagnosed after their first episode. This delay means that they may be diagnosed with something else in the meantime, like an anxiety disorder, depression, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Or they may lose friends, lose jobs, or abuse drugs or alcohol before receiving effective treatment.
“After years of being misdiagnosed and going on and off antidepressants, I was finally given the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. That was a huge breakthrough for me. It made the way I felt and the severe mood swings I would experience feel validated. There was a reason. I now had words to explain what I was going through: mania, depression, hypomania.
I now know why all of the medications I’ve tried over the years never worked for me. Like most people with bipolar, I had been diagnosed consistently with depression and anxiety disorder. The reason for this common misdiagnosis is due to the fact that most people with bipolar don’t acknowledge or recognize the mania. For many—not all—mania is relief from the depression. You feel good, productive, accomplished, unstoppable. However, the mania can also be dangerous and is always met with an inevitable crash because your body can’t withstand that type of exertion without rest. So, when I would plunge into severe depression and couldn’t take it anymore, I would go see a doctor.
The antidepressants never worked, and the antianxiety medications made me a zombie. Oftentimes, I would get worse, but the doctors always told me it was because I stopped taking the medications. I found out recently that antidepressants can actually throw someone with bipolar into mania or depression. Again, I finally felt validated.”
-How Invalidating My Bipolar Disorder Invalidates Me, NAMI
“I saw eight psychiatrists before I got my diagnosis and was misdiagnosed almost always with depression. Bipolar patients are misdiagnosed on average eight to 10 times before they see a doctor who diagnoses them correctly. Back then, I thought they were all right. And it’s understandable, because I only went to those doctors when I was in my down periods, feeling terrible. I didn’t go when I was feeling elated or manic. And that’s still a problem today: people who are bipolar are not so willing to give up their mania.”
What Does Hope Feel Like?
If you have bipolar disorder and need support, you can read countless stories from people who have learned to manage their brain disorder and live happy, fulfilling lives. You can find these inspiring accounts at places like BP Hope and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).
“If you have bipolar disorder, your life is going to include some periods of crushing depression, some periods of whacked-out mania or hypomania, a whole lot of meds, perhaps a psychotic episode here and there, and maybe a hospitalization or two (or ten). You can experience all those things and still have a fun, meaningful, productive life.”
-Hilary T. Smith, “Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Bipolar but Were Too Freaked Out to Ask”
“I see my illness as a watercolor painting. My medications are the colors, which allow my vitality to show through. The water is my tears. The blurring and running of the paint represent the uncertainty that I lived with during those years. I imagine that this past episode will not be my last as that is the nature of my bipolar illness. The skies are stormy at times, but as in any meaningful painting, there is light and hope shining through.”
-Anonymous, in Nature
“Someone once asked me whether I would get rid of my bipolar disorder if I could. My answer is no. No matter how I have arrived at the point where I am now–whether it is due to my bipolar or my personality–my past has made me into someone I am proud to be today. I am living proof that a bipolar diagnosis is not a death sentence. Rather than just surviving, I have thrived…And yet, for all of my professional achievements, I am most proud of my recovery, which is still my hardest-fought battle.”
Living with bipolar disorder isn’t about trying to always be happy. It’s about looking up into the sky during your darkest nights and seeing the stars shining down on you. The darker your world becomes, the brighter they shine. They are the hope inside that guides you until the sun rises once more. It is then that you have stolen victory from certain defeat.”
-Bryce R. Hostetler, “Slip-Resistant Socks: My Journey with Bipolar Disorder”