Getting help for bipolar affective disorder

Getting help for bipolar affective disorder

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SALT LAKE CITY &38212; Awareness of bipolar affective disorder has increased greatly since the late '70s when my mother was diagnosed as manic depressive — that decade's equivalent of bipolar.

The name changed universally (for clarity in diagnosing) in 1980, and worked its way into common usage in the years following with the publication of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The soon-to-be-released fifth edition of the DSM will have my photo on the cover.

My mother was given what was a typical (again, for that time) antipsychotic drug, Thorazine. Thinking about what it did to her makes me ill to this day. She was a vibrant, intelligent and talented "loon," but on this drug she was a vegetable. I knew my mother was in there somewhere, but I couldn't find her.

The knowledge and understanding of bipolar/manic depression was not to be found in the '70s. The only thing I can do about it today is hope that God, in his wisdom, will make it up to her. That, and blame whoever hasn’t yet gained the smarts to invent a time machine.

There have been many developments made concerning the disorder, and I am excited and encouraged by what may happen in the future. In the meantime, there is a lot we loons, and friends and family of loons, can do to deal and understand.

FAQs (and answers) about bipolar disorder

Because of my sorta-public stance, I have been getting questions. I thought I would share a few. Some are better than others:

Q: How long will you have it? (I am sure they mean the disorder)

A: The life expectancy of a human male is 77 years in the United States. It’s different in Afghanistan.

Q: Can’t you just have the operation?

A: Thank you for asking. What operation is that, exactly? The only operation that might calm my troubled mind is liposuction.

Q: Can you tell me when you are going to freak out?

A: Believe me, you will know.

Q: Can I get the disorder from you?

A: This question only makes sense if it comes from your children. And the fact is that, yes son, you may get it through me. But we know the signs, we are watching, and are ready to help.

Q: Can I have the disorder and still have a real life?

A: Dude. (I don’t say that often) There is nothing more real in this world than what you are going through. Use the tools available and get your close friends and family involved.

Q: How is bipolar disordertreated?

A: Good question. There are medications called mood stabilizers. For extreme mania, there are antipsychotic prescriptions and/or tranquilizers. For depressive episodes, sometimes a combination of lithium and an antidepressant are used.

Of course, cognitive therapy is helpful to learn how to deal. Electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatments), the fodder of horror stories, is making a comeback of sorts and is said to be quite effective. However, my expertise lies with experience, and with this treatment I can only share what I have heard from those who have tried it, and their feedback is positive.

Q: What can I do to help someone with bipolar disorder.

A: Be supportive. Don’t talk about it in front of others unless they do — follow their lead. Be sensitive but not quick to take offense. Treat them like you would treat anyone. Humor is good; and in my case, hide your paint. (you may need to read last week's column for this to make sense.) Don't forget to actually ask your bipolar friend/relative that very question.

Q: How long will I be on meds?

A: That’s between you and your doctor, but it may be some time. A person should never stop taking their prescribed medications without a doctor's permission, by the way. I have done just that with disastrous results. My thinking was that, as I was finally doing better in life, I may have out-grown the need for the medications I was on, when the reason I was doing better in life was that I WAS ON MEDICATIONS. Don’t make that mistake.

Q: I feel miserable. How do I get help for bipolar disorder?

A: First, look at the check lists we mentioned last week and see if you fit the profile. If you do, your regular medical doctor can head you in the right direction. He or she knows what to ask and can prescribe medication. A licensed psychiatrist can as well, and can walk you through. Be truthful and let them know if there is a change emotionally, physically or mentally. Sometimes medications miss the mark. Let the doctor know so that he or she can adjust accordingly.

Making sure you receive effective medical care

Be prepared for the doctor(s) to do the following:

  1. Gather your family medical history, including whether any relative has been bipolar, or exhibited behaviors of bipolar disorder. This is huge.
  2. Ascertain whether there is a physical reason for your moods, such as a thyroid problem, with a thorough examination and some standard tests.
  3. Ask about any medications you may be on.
  4. Discuss recent mood swings, possible manic episodes and depression. You may fall into a different category or have something closely related, such as cyclothymia, that has similar symptoms.
  5. Your doctor may want to speak to family members or close friends about your behavior. Don’t be offended like I was. Your doctor doesn’t think you are lying; he or she just wants every point of view available.

The doctor will try to help you avoid the huge mood swings and hospital stays. He or she wants you to function the best you can and may prescribe a mood stabilizer such as lithium, or use a combination of stabilizers and anti-psychotics/anti-anxiety drugs. An antidepressant may be added to your mood stabilizer. (For bipolars, it is often best not to take an antidepressant alone.)

There is also electroconvulsive therapy available. Before you shudder, know that great strides have been made in this field. Try not to think about “One Flew Over A Coo-Coo’s nest. There are people who swear by it (Carrie Fisher for one, who really does swear in her book “Shockaholic" — a difficult but interesting read. Stick to the section on ECT if you aren’t into a book with a PG-13 rating.)

Most importantly, know that bipolar is livable. I believe God gave us some of these problems to make us better people, and medications to help us not kill the other people.

Take advantage of what medicine can do. Take a pill, fix a problem and have a life. We — though we may be loony — are not helpless.


Main image: Those with bipolar disorder are not helpless. (Photo: Shutterstock)


About the Author: Davison Cheney --------------------------------

*Davison Cheney writes "The Prodigal Dad" series every week on This is third and final article in the series concerning Davison Cheney's personal dealings with being bipolar. Also see**

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