- Bipolar disorder is characterised by manic and depressive episodes.
- It shouldn’t be romanticised, said Katherine Ponte, who has lived with bipolar 1 for 15 years.
- People tend to be in the depressive episodes longer than the manic ones.
- But it’s the manic episodes that “get you in trouble.”
Mental health disorders can be wrongly portrayed in film and television, often being shown as more romantic, dramatic, or dangerous than they really are. So people can often end up with ideas about them that aren’t accurate.
Bipolar disorder is no different.
Katherine Ponte, founder of ForLikeMinds, spoke to INSIDER about what it’s been like to live with bipolar 1 disorder for the past 15 years – and the most common misconceptions that exist around bipoar.
Bipolar 1 is characterised by manic episodes, depressive episodes, and potentially some psychosis. Bipolar 2 is a different disorder where the episodes of mania are less severe, often called hypomania.
Ponte said people don’t realise the intensity of the manic and depressive episodes.
“When you’re manic, you don’t think you’re gonna die, you think you’re on top of the world, you can do anything,” she said. “When you have major depression, that can kill you.”
She also said people with bipolar 1 don’t spend as much time in manic episodes as you might think.
For Ponte, it was the depression that mostly took over her life – it was just that the manic episodes were the times she ended up in hospital because she was behaving strangely.
“The images we see of bipolar is an incomplete representation,” she said. “People think ‘oh my gosh, that looks so cool,’ … I would assure people that it’s not.”
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Ponte has had five manic episodes over the years, and been hosipitalised as a result. She said they shouldn’t be romanticised in any way. In reality, she thought the world was coming to an end, destroyed her apartment, and took a hammer to her TV.
This isn’t just difficult for her, but for her family, too. It was particularly traumatising for her husband.
“I was watching CNN and I thought it was a medium of misinformation to people that contributed to war,” Ponte said.
“I took a hammer on the TV, and my husband came home and saw everything trashed. I had barricaded the door, he had to take off the back door to get in, and he saw the apartment was a complete total mess and he was just freaking out, like, ‘My God, what is happening, what is happening to you?'”
Having a career with bipolar disorder
Another misconception is that people with bipolar can’t be good employees. Ponte has been stable on her medications and hasn’t had an episode since 2014.
“I have the qualifications you need, but yes, I have a mental illness,” she said. “A lot needs to be done in workplace mental health so it can become a more accepting environment. Something I’ve seen is that any accommodations that are made for people with mental illnesses, to reduce stress, help the entire workforce and help all employees, not just those with mental illness.”
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Joseph Goldberg, said there is another common misconception that people with bipolar are shifting from manic to depressed all the time.
“To that end people also sometimes wrongly think that moment-to-moment mood ‘swings’ in response to normal life stresses are indicative of bipolar disorder,” he told INSIDER. “The ‘mood’ component is just one of many other features (such as decreased need for sleep and excessive energy) and an episode is defined by a constellation of symptoms that last for at least several days.”
Bipolar doesn’t mean rage
Also, people with bipolar are not more prone to bouts of rage, though this perception may be another reason workplaces are wary of hiring people with the disorder.
“Anger outbursts alone can be due to many things other than bipolar disorder,” Goldberg said. “In general [they] are a less common phenomenon in bipolar disorder than other conditions such as borderline personality disorder, substance abuse disorders, or developmental disorders.”
It may take a while yet for bipolar disorder to be well understood by people with no experience of it. But as Ponte said, she can’t wait around for people to be okay with it. It’s her mental illness, and she’s learned how to handle it.
“People with mental illness, they can’t just wait around for a stigma to go away for them to start taking more control of their life and believing they have that possibility,” she said. “Recovery gives people hope, and I want through my work, using my example, to give that hope.”