If the postwar period was called the “age of anxiety” and the 80s and 90s or 00s the “antidepressant era”, we now live in bipolar times. A diagnosis that once applied to less than 1% of the population has risen dramatically, with almost 25% of Americans and around 5% of people in the UK estimated to suffer from some form of bipolarity.
Celebrities such as Catherine-Zeta-Jones, Adam Ant, Demi Lovato, and Carrie Fisher (RIP) spoke of their bipolar conditions, also memoirs and self-help books flood the marketplace, including mine, lol. CIA agent Carrie Mathison in ”Homeland” and ex-teacher Pat Solitano in ”Silver linings playbook” are portrayed as bipolar, and it even gets a mention in ”Scooby Doo” lol.
As the old category of manic-depression was replaced by the new bipolar diagnosis, the latter generated even more variations and subtypes: bipolar 1 was followed by bipolar 2, then bipolar 3 in the shape of Cyclothymia and so on. A lowering of diagnostic thresholds and an increasing emphasis on mood swings means that more and more people can be caught on the bipolar train.
But recent debates that focus on how many days a person needs to be high or low to qualify as bipolar, miss the fucking point!. Early research involved listening to what the person had to say. There was an effort to move beyond the vagaries of mood swings and surface behaviour to find the motifs of bipolar disorder, and to investigate its differences from other diagnostic categories.
As many currents in mainstream psychiatry encourage an irresponsible blurring of these categories, it is the writers of first-hand accounts who bring us back to the original project of exploring individual experience. Rather than buying into the expanding maze of bipolar diagnoses, we need to return to the old category of manic depression and learn what is really at stake. Memoirs by Stephen Fry, Terri Cheney, Lizzie Simon, and of course, yours truly, lol. I think this poses a serious challenge to today’s diagnostic laziness, as well as inviting us to rethink the phenomena of manic depression.
For me personally, I’m more manic than depressed. I’ve not been on meds since 2016. I tried a lot of different meds, but they all made me feel a lot worse. I just couldn’t function on them. Being a full time carer for my wife, I had to be on the ball.
If in mania the person has the brilliant feeling of no longer being judged, or no longer being responsible, judgment returns in a powerful, shattering way in the depressions. Many manic-depressive people report turning over in their minds all the bad things they have done, even years previously, during their lows. Any event from life, however trivial or distant, can be made 10x worse.
The autobiographies of writers such as Cheney and Fry show how the cycles of manic depression are never accidental. There is a difficulty when it comes to integrating history, as if the links to their past cannot be meaningfully subsumed. The mood swings seem to come out of nowhere.
Thats all folks!