If I were explaining bipolar disorder to my neighbour – which actually I wouldn’t since I have lousy neighbours – but say it was an acquaintance, I would keep it simple. Just the basic facts. I would probably say something like, bipolar disorder is a condition of the brain that effects your mood.
Now, if I were explaining it to my best friend or a close family member, I would definitely add more detail. I would explain about the neurotransmitters (chemicals) in the brain that don’t fire correctly or are at a deficit. And that these transmitters are responsible for controlling mood, feelings and behaviour. I would also explain that it’s a life-long, chronic, progressive disease and that it requires medication and therapy to control. I would explain about the mania – oh the mania – the euphoric highs and what they look like, but also, sometimes the dysphoria and the anger and aggression that goes with that. Then, of course, are the lows – the deep, dark depressions that can be all-consuming.
You would also have to explain that medication doesn’t always work. That it can take years to find the right blend, or “cocktail” of meds that work particularly for you. And then, that changes can occur in your brain that can stop your cocktail from working. And most importantly, though there are triggers (and you should explain your particular ones), sometimes these changes occur for no reason. And that you can’t control the triggers or the changes. I think that’s an important part for people to understand. People with bipolar disorder absolutely cannot control the changes in their brain chemistry. However, you should explain that this condition can be managed. It can be managed by self-care – things like proper sleep, routine, nutrition, exercise (see my blog on self-care) – knowing your triggers and avoiding them, seeing your therapist and psychiatrist and remaining med-compliant.
But most importantly the person needs to know that it’s not your fault. That you didn’t ask for this disease. And that they can help (see my blog on helping someone with bipolar). They can help in so many ways, but particularly in understanding the illness. Have them read a book on the subject or direct them to particular websites. Knowledge of bipolar disorder is paramount in understanding and caring for someone with it. If nothing else, I would encourage (or plead) for them to read about bipolar, for that is where the real understanding will come from.