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Five Things We Wish You Knew About Bipolar

by Hilary Smith, author of Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask

Dealing with a bipolar diagnosis is hard. Dealing with parents, friends, and relatives who have slightly, er, misguided notions about what having bipolar entails can be even harder. You can help a young person dealing with mental illness for the first time by being open, understanding, and well-informed—and by nixing any false beliefs and assumptions you have about bipolar. Here are a few of the things we wish you knew.

1. Just because we’ve been diagnosed with bipolar doesn’t mean we’re either depressed or manic 24/7. Lots of us cruise through long periods (months or even years at a time) without any major episodes.

2. Sure, some of the things we say and do are directly fueled by depression or mania, but please don’t attribute our every word and deed to having bipolar disorder. If our death metal band is the dopest, it’s because we showed up for band practice, not because our mania imbued us with satanic electric guitar powers (well, maybe a little bit).

3. If you’re curious about what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, just ask. Most of us would be happy to share some stories, and it helps to know you’re interested (as opposed to freaked out).

4. Dealing with bipolar disorder can be as exhausting and time-consuming as training for the Olympics. So be understanding if we need a little extra time to finish college/move out/get a job/fulfill your every hope and dream. We’ve got a lot on our plates already.

5. If we’re ill when you read this: always remember that we can recover. We can find ourselves again. We can have happy, productive, meaningful, bad-ass, awesome lives. Yes, the awesomeness will be interspersed with periods of depression and mania, but that’s just how we roll.

So there it is. We don’t expect you to stay up late reading the latest research papers on GABA receptors, to drop psychiatry jargon like “mixed episode” and “affect,” or even to know how to pronounce the names of our meds. Just stay cool, and remember we’re people first, not diagnoses.