The State of Bipolar

I was chatting in the yard yesterday with my new neighbor, who just moved here to Colorado from Texas.  She was telling me that they used to refer to Texas as the “Bipolar State” because of its crazy weather fluctuations, but claims that Colorado has weirder highs and lows than any place she’s ever lived until now.  She said that Colorado has now assumed the label of “Bipolar State” in her household because here it’s not unusual to have weather in the 70s in the middle of winter, and then two feet of heavy wet snow in April.  When she told me this, I giggled politely and agreed with her synopsis.

Funny, two years ago this sort of misuse of the term “bipolar” would have probably sent me over the edge.  I was always so offended when people used the label incorrectly.  “My husband must be bipolar because he was so depressed about the outcome of the U.S. Open, but ten minutes later was over the moon because we had steaks for dinner”.  I’ve also heard, “Yeah, that kid at school must be bipolar or something because he’s so weird”.  The best yet?  “My cat is so bipolar!  She flips out if her food dish isn’t full!”

I wonder if any of these people are actually familiar with the reality behind the term “bipolar”? It is a medical diagnosis, not a description for erratic behavior.  It is a noun, not an adjective.  Would people walk around claiming, “OMG, that guy is acting soooooo diabetic”, or “That grass is growing as fast as cancer”.  Those diseases deserve respect and tolerance, and it’s rare that someone would dare express ignorance by misusing those words in a way that could be derogatory.  So why does the term “bipolar” not demand the same respect?

It all goes back to the stigma associated with my disorder.  It’s something only “crazy” people have, it’s “all in her head”, it’s not a real disease.  But it is real.  And I mean no disrespect for those suffering from diabetes or cancer, but sometimes I wish I had something different because bipolar disorder does not elicit the kind of sympathy and tolerance that patients suffering from the previously mentioned diseases might receive.  Instead, it’s the families of those who are bipolar who seem to be the only ones receiving any empathy or attention.  “I’m so sorry you have to deal with a mentally ill spouse……”.

In retrospect, I realize that my neighbor wasn’t making light of my disorder.  She doesn’t know anything about my bipolar-ness.  She wasn’t trying to diminish the importance of my disease.  She was merely making conversation, and in her defense, “bipolar state” is probably a pretty accurate description for Colorado’s “crazy” weather.  And I clearly have learned tolerance of these kind of remarks because I didn’t lecture her, then turn on my heel and march out of her yard while flipping her off as I might have done a couple of years ago.  Instead, we are meeting for coffee next week.

The “State of Bipolar” remains the same.  We need to continue to decrease stigma and increase awareness and tolerance of our disorder.  We need to stand up for ourselves and educate those around us. Maybe at coffee next week, I can step forward and tell my new neighbor about my illness and maybe the next time she describes Colorado’s weather, she will use the term “unpredictable”, instead.

In the meantime, a “bipolar state” and the “state of bipolar” will provide me with lots to talk about in the future.