How to write - mental disorder series, part two : Bipolar Disorder.
Most of the time characters being portrayed as bipolar are played wrong. Because people simply play them as characters with constant mood swings. But you really understand your bi-polar character, you need to understand what manic-depressive disorder really is.
First and foremost, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes severe mood swings. You know, your mom might be nice one moment and a complete bitch the next? Well, that’s nothing compared to what bipolar people suffer with.
But, bipolar people aren’t on a constant up and down battle - the moods last for weeks, months, even years. The first, being the manic sort, there is also hypomania, severe depression and mixed effects. Bipolar experience every emotion in the book, they’re not emotionally tapped droids that only feel happy and sad or they’re simply on an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs… Not the case. To understand, I’ve broken down the states for you. But first.
The causes of bipolar disorder are speculation at best. There have been countless studies that lead to countless different answers. Something common is environmental states and genetics. At this point there’s not a defined caused, just theories. If you’d like to read on these assumed causes, please reference this page.
Hypomania | Hypomania is something bipolar people may experience quite often that can last from a week, to months. If completely untreated, it’s been known to last years. Generally, it has a few symptoms and it’s not life threatening for the character. It’s simply a slightly elevated mood, if your character is experiencing hypomania they’re going to be floating high, but not out of control. A few things your character might experience while in a hypomanic episode are: optimism, the need for constant activity, quickened speech, no need for sleep, increased productivity and desire to create, slight irritability, hypersexuality. People experiencing hypomania will deny anything is wrong, usually because they feel so good and don’t realize they’re going through an episode. There is the potential (rarely, however) for a hypomaniac episode to turn bad, ending up with the character turning cold and cruel.
For example: “Are you okay?” Ben’s roommate asked, glancing over and trying to see what the speedy brunette was doing. “Just fine.” he said, a chirp in his voice - clearly he was okay, right? Bens hands flipped another piece of bread, coating it in mayonnaise. “Are you sure, hummingbird?” he asked again, stepping closer, blinking at the kitchen table. “Yeah why would you ask that?” Ben felt great, actually. “You’ve made thirty-six ham sandwiches…” the voice spoke softly, picking one up and taking a bite. “So, I figured I would make lunch fo —” Ben didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence before Kyle snorted. “Africa?” he said dryly, chewing on a chunk of bread. “Fine, I’ll go do something else if I’m bothering you.” Ben shrugged a bit, dropping the food and heading toward the garage… it did need cleaning.
Mania | Mania is something that will last for about a week, it’s often a state of euphoria. In all cases, people that are experiencing mania seem to have more energy, and yet need less sleep (usually no more than four hours a night), some go days - hence the danger. If you’re writing an up for a bipolar character, chances are they’ll experience one, a few of - or all of the following: increased libido, short attention span, irritability, elevated energy, become overly and easily excited, erratic behavior and poor choices; much like a drunk, during these states they have lowered inhibitions. At the peak of a mania spike, a bipolar character can become destructive, irrational and potentially psychotic on a violent level. Many times a person experiencing mania will have delusions - thinking they’re special, supposed to do something (usually dangerous or stupid), go on spending sprees or gamble their lives away. They often turn to drugs, which is extremely dangerous, as their mood is already unstable. In short, they’re not much like themselves.
For instance: Sleep had been hard to come by for the last few weeks. Ben should have realized it was going to happen again, but right now none of it mattered. “What.” he huffed, rubbing his eye and looking to the man speaking at him. He couldn’t focus - he tried to, but his mind refused to listen to the mans words. “How long have you been awake…” his friend asked, bringing a hand to his shoulder in concern. “About four days.” Ben retorted, looking tired but feeling amazing. A little hungry, but amazing - he was full of energy. “That’s not healthy.” normally he’d thank the friend, normally he’d nod and agree, but right now… the words simply annoyed him. “Keep your opinion to yourself, I have shit to do.” Ben flailed a hand around before taking off toward the door, dead set on spending the rest of his night in the casino. Maybe that would tire him out.
Depression | When most people experience depression it’s one thing, but with a person suffering from bipolar disorder it’s another story. It’s a slow build - others around the person should notice these mood changes. For a while the character would seem depressed - down and staying down. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: fatigue, loss of interest, sadness, anti-social behavior, anxiety and panic, anger, loneliness, self-loathing, shyness, lack of sexual interest, pain (with no underlining issue generally), suicidal thoughts and lack of desire to do much of anything. Once these cases have peaked, they last generally two weeks, and if not addressed there have been cases in which the depression stage has lasted over seven months. Things that a character going through a full depression phase would experience are: the aforementioned states, psychotic behavior, hallucinations and extreme suicidal thoughts with lack of sleep.
Poor Ben : A loud thump could have been heard through the building - had anyone else been there to hear it. “Fuck.” he let out a pained sigh, sliding up against the couch and grabbing the remote, idly flicking through channels - nothing could hold his attention. The last two weeks had been hell for Ben, he couldn’t remember even a second of happiness, and yet he didn’t know what he was so sad about. “Fuck.” he mumbled again, throwing the remote across the room and watching it burst open against the wall. His hands trailed up and down his arm, wondering what it would feel like - no… No he wasn’t that sad, it wasn’t that bad… Was it? He glanced over his shoulder… The kitchen was right there… The knives were right there… He would have gotten up to get one, too… If he could be bothered to stand.
Mixed States | There’s a not-so happy medium with bipolar disorder. Along with having to endure the aforementioned moods, there are mixed states. This is what most people write about, since it’s what most people assume bipolar disorder is all the time. The mixed state is the center of depression state and mania state. There isn’t a set timeline for mixed state, everyone experiences them differently. However, most people in a mixed state endure the same symptoms - being: the symptoms of mania and depression - cycling, frustration and serious suicidal thoughts. The mixed state is considered the most dangerous due to the up and down jumping of the characters emotion.
Ben cycling: Laughter resonated through the hallways, loud enough to wake the neighbors. “Fucking eh.” he smiled, sinking into the couch before rubbing his face. Whatever he was watching was hilarious. Ben looked down to his sketchbook, taking a deep breath before tossing it down. “Shit…” he said, pushing up off the couch and slamming his hands against the book. “Always shit.” he groaned, bringing his hands up to his face, whining and whimpering. Calm down - he thought to himself, it’s just a sketch, he told himself… But he didn’t listen to that voice of reason that was slowly fading. “FUCK.” he shouted, dropping to the ground and curling into himself, bringing his knees to his chest and holding them tightly, trying to keep from bursting into tears.
Hopefully this has helped you understand bipolar disorder just a little more. Here is a page where people can share their stories. Of course I don’t recommend using anyone’s personal experience for your character - especially without their permission. But, they’re good reads to get an even better grip on the disorder you’ll be playing.