Penny (not her real name) didn’t imagine she’d have bipolar disorder. It had been a year since she started seeking treatment for major depressive disorder, and she was finally feeling like she had regained control of her mental health. In fact, she was feeling pretty darn good at her doctor’s appointment that day – except her mind often sprinted from one topic to the next. Half-jokingly, she asked her doctor: “Do you think I have ADHD?”
He asked her a list of questions. Some were innocuous, like whether she had many hobbies. Oh yes! The 30-something described how when she was interested in something, she spent endless energy and often obscene amounts of money on it. But just as suddenly, this interest would fizzle out and she’d move on to a new obsession.
Other questions were harder to answer. Do you have grandiose thoughts? “How do you differentiate ‘grandiose’ from ‘ambitious’?” wondered Penny, who worked in the creative industry then. She’d always been driven so what others might consider ‘grandiose’, she simply accepted as challenges.
The good news was, she could focus her attention when required so she did not have ADHD. The bad news? She had Bipolar 2 Disorder.
Penny was horrified: “Bipolar sounds so much worse than ADHD! Am I crazy?”
Which is how many others feel too. But no, Penny isn’t “crazy”. Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, and she suffers from “bipolar” (hence two extremes of) mood: depressed (“low”) and manic (“high”). These usually occur in episodes. In between episodes, patients function normally and competently – with many even reporting high performance at work.
According to Institute of Mental Health (IMH), the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder are:
- When depressed, patients feel persistently sad and hopeless. Often lethargic, they experience disturbances in sleep and appetite, as well as excessive feelings of negativity, guilt and even suicide.
- When manic, patients feel overly elated and energetic, but are also more irritable. They often require very little sleep, have racing thoughts, talk very quickly and make many grand plans. Some may believe they have supernatural powers, or a special mission. Bipolar patients may also impulsively engage in potentially dangerous behaviour.
Besides these symptoms, during hypomanic episodes, some patients find it difficult to control their spending and chalk up massive debt. Others make rash decisions, such as throwing resignation letters at their boss. Meanwhile, a handful indulge in reckless sexual activity like one-night stands. Oh, and you don’t have to tick every single box to be bipolar, Penny’s doctor gently reminded.
Grudgingly, Penny admitted many of her symptoms matched. She spoke fast, worked fast, and was always in a hurry with a packed schedule. She spearheaded projects, met crazy deadlines and survived on very little sleep. Her mind craved to be occupied as she juggled various assignments.
“I took on anything as long as I was interested in the subject. And I was interested in everything,” recalls Penny. “I thought I just enjoyed learning about new things. But now, I recognise it was my way of burning up excessive energy.”
When she had the rare time-off, instead of enjoying her rest, she often felt useless. She suffered periods of severe depression and would hide under her blanket for days. All returned to “normal” when another project came along.
Unfortunately, like other bipolar patients, Penny spent way too much
For a spell, she fell madly in love with collectible toys and staked out shops, eBay and Carousell to buy discontinued items. She researched on different models, knew every character and bought books on them. During one manic episode, she blew $6,000 in two weeks on rare toys. She didn’t quite understand why: “Growing up, I was a bookworm and didn’t even like playing with toys much!”
Jewellery was another obsession. On one occasion, she was the last customer to leave a jewellery store, where she negotiated prices down on a 1-ct diamond ring and several pairs of earrings and chunky cocktail rings. She left on a high and with a five-figure credit card bill.
Her interest piqued, she started buying loose gemstones and planned to design her own jewellery. While getting a quotation at the jeweller, she became distracted by beautiful readymade gemstone jewellery, which led to a plan to enroll in a precious metal arts diploma to set her vast assortment of gemstones, including sapphire, emerald, ruby, amethyst, topaz, quartz, moonstone, pearls, and others. Eventually, she decided to splash out on a tanzanite ring instead.
Next came jade. She discovered a shop that had their own factory in Myanmar and sold good-quality jade at competitive prices. Cue the jade bangles, dozens of pendants, earrings and the most ridiculous purchase of all – 12 delicate Chinese wine cups carved from white jade, topped with gold-plated animal heads from the Chinese zodiac. “I don’t know why I bought them! I don’t even drink wine!” laughs Penny. She now displays them at home during Lunar New Year.
Along with the highs came the inevitable lows. One day, after coming off the adrenaline buzz from pulling off an excellent presentation, a colleague passed a snide remark aimed to embarrass her. Penny’s mood plunged – driven almost to tears, she battled a fresh round of depression. She suffered racing thoughts and insomnia for weeks and was prescribed new medication and sleeping pills.
Four years on, Penny has become more adept at recognising triggers so she can catch herself before depression hits. She now has a full-time job in a different field, where the routine of office hours helps her to cope better. “Bipolar or not, I still take a lot of pride in my work and it makes me happy to do it well,” she says.
She has become more accepting of her condition too, quipping, “I’m in pretty good company.” Her bipolar comrades include Winston Churchill, Mariah Carey, Carrie “Princess Leia” Fisher, Mel Gibson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Kanye West.
Of the last, who most recently put bipolar disorder in the spotlight after he announced a bizarre campaign to run for US presidency, Penny confides, “It was sad watching the whole thing unfold because his incoherent high reminds me of myself during a manic episode.”
Watching others mock the American rapper also refreshed her fears about stigma. She hopes that amid such negativity, West has helped highlight the challenges those with bipolar disorder and their loved ones, live with. As she reiterates, “It is an illness, just like diabetes or heart disease.”
She continues by citing how studies on bipolar disorder have linked it to high levels of creativity and intelligence. For this story with A Magazine, she’s chosen to share her story using a pseudonym because she fears the stigma that comes with the condition. “Treat us with kindness and empathy please,” she says, before adding that patients can have very fulfilling professional and personal lives – “just like anyone else”.
There are 5 types of bipolar disorder
# Type 1 is characterised by severe mood episodes from mania to depression.
# Type 2 involves milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with periods of severe depression.
# Patients with Cyclothymic Disorder experience both hypomanic and depressive symptoms but these are less extensive or long-lasting.
# Patients with Mixed Features often observe symptoms of opposite mood polarities during manic, hypomanic or depressive episodes, which occur simultaneously with high energy, sleeplessness, and racing thoughts.
# In Rapid Cycling, four or more mood episodes can occur within a 12-month period or even drastic changes of moods within a day or week.
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