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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Bipolar Disorder - My Personal Journey to Understanding

June 17, 2011


John and Veteran 

"The Psychosocial Rehabilitation & Recovery Center offers a variety of skill groups like social skills, illness management and recovery, and clear thinking, as well as activities in the community, such as a volunteer group," said Social Worker John Dietrich, L.C.S.W., L.C.D.C. meeting  with Army Veteran Cheryl Jefferson. "Veterans meet with their coaches to develop individualized goals and develop a plan to reach them." 

Bipolar disorder. What is bipolar disorder? It is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. The symptoms can be severe. People experience feelings that are different from the normal ups and downs everyone goes through from time to time.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, people with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called “mood episodes.” There are two types of mood states. First, there is the manic state, when a person experiences an abnormally expansive, elevated, or irritable mood. Second, there is the depressive state, where someone is extremely sad or hopeless.

There are times when a person with bipolar can experience symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time, called a mixed state. During an episode, one can display behaviors of explosiveness and irritability, extreme changes in energy, activity, and sleep patterns. Functionality depends upon the severity of the symptoms.

I suffer with this disorder. For me, bipolar disorder is a constant roller coaster of feelings and emotions that have taken a lifetime to learn how to manage. At times, it is very difficult; almost impossible to control of my emotions. I can be having a very good day; and then suddenly, there are tears coming out of the blue. I often experience instant changes in emotions and uncertainty in my decisions.

Bipolar disorder does not discriminate - it can affect anyone. The onset of the illness can happen quickly. For instance, I was attending my junior year of college. All of a sudden, my life took a turn for the worst. I dropped out of school and my life was in a tailspin.

This often happens because people do not understand the illness or what is happening to them. The signs and symptoms are not recognizable. The person urgently needs the help from people who have experience treating this illness.

I have asked myself is this disorder hereditary? Studies have shown a person with one parent with the illness has a 15 to 30 percent chance of having bipolar disorder. If both parents have it, then the chances rise to 50 to 75 percent.

Bipolar disorder can be displayed as early as the teen years, often it shows up in the 20s and lasts your entire life. The disease can be onset by traumatic events in life such as the loss of someone important in your life, divorce, or losing a job. Also, a person can develop such conditions without any warnings and without having a family history. It can cause severe damage to relationships and many people have thoughts about ending their lives.

Bipolar disorder impacts all of a person’s relationships. It can result in the chaotic and dysfunctional rearing of children. This disorder carries a significant burden for family and friends.

Treatment can improve relationships and daily living. However; when left untreated, the impact can have severe negative consequences on every part of life — relationships, work life, school performance, and spiritual life. It can damage emotional ties.

Some people with manic episodes can manifest irritability and become verbally abusive. During a manic episode, one can create financial problems by going on spending sprees; buying many things that are not necessary. When depressed, one may not be able to meet job responsibilities; creating financial struggles for the entire family.

Someone with untreated bipolar disorder may also struggle with communication problems; a combination of being overly sensitive during a manic state and uncaring during a depressive state. Family members start avoiding communicating altogether. This often leads to further misunderstanding and conflicts within the family unit.

Many dysfunctions may occur within the family when there is someone with untreated bipolar disorder. The healthy choice is for both the individual and the family seek out as much information as possible about bipolar disorder and get the help they need. Getting the right care can support a healthy and more productive lifestyle for everyone.

If you are a Veteran or friend/family member of a Veteran suffering from severe and persistent mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia, schizoaffective mood disorder, bipolar disorder, major affective disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder) with significant functional impairment, contact the Psychosocial Rehabilitation & Recovery Center at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center about available programs and services, 713-791-1414, ext. 6712.