There are so many myths about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. People constantly make assumptions about it based on media portrayals, but life is not a movie or a news report. Living with bipolar disorder is complex and varied, and what happens for some is not necessarily common for all. So, let’s dispel some of the myths about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and encourage people to stop making uneducated assumptions.

Living with Bipolar Myth #1: We Experience Violent Outbursts

The media loves to mention that a person has bipolar disorder when there’s a violent incident. This convinces people that those with bipolar disorder are violent. This is rarely the case.

While people with bipolar disorder are more likely than the average person to be violent, this is primarily the case where a comorbid substance use disorder or a personality disorder is involved. For example, the NESARC study from 2001-2002 found that while 0.66% of the population without a psychiatric diagnosis exhibited aggressive behavior, those without comorbidity (i.e., an additional illness like a substance use disorder or a personality disorder) and bipolar type I had a rate of 2.52%, and those without comorbidity and bipolar type II had a rate of 5.12%. Those numbers are elevated when compared to the general population without a diagnosis, true, but are still very, very low. To say that people with bipolar disorder are violent is radically incorrect.

Living with Bipolar Myth #2: We Repeatedly Experience Radical Mood Shifts

Again, thanks to the movies and television, people are under the impression that those with bipolar disorder will flip from one mood state to another at the drop of a hat. This is not true. Most mood episodes in bipolar disorder last from weeks to months (when untreated). Additionally, most people with bipolar disorder experience fewer than four mood episodes per year. There is a minority of people who experience rapid cycling bipolar disorder (more than three episodes per year), but even those people experience mood states that typically last for days to weeks. The 12-month prevalence of rapid-cycling bipolar disorder was found to be 0.3% in a 2010 study.

Living with Bipolar Myth #3: We Are All Addicts

While it is true that substance use disorders are common in those with bipolar disorder, it is still not true for everyone. In surveys between 1990 and 2015, it was found that substance use disorders were present in more than 30% of those with bipolar disorder in the community and 40% of those in clinical settings. (For comparison, it’s about 16.5% in the American population ages 12 and over.) That certainly makes it common (even in those without bipolar disorder), but it does not make it universal. It’s unfair to assume that a person has a substance use disorder just because they have bipolar disorder when more than half of us do not.

Living with Bipolar Myth #4: We Exhibit Antisocial Behaviors Such as Deceitfulness and a Lack of Guilt and Empathy

Antisocial behaviors are not typically associated with bipolar disorder and are not listed as diagnostic symptoms. Antisocial behaviors are normally associated with antisocial personality disorder. A person can have both antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder, but this is only true for about 4.1% of people with bipolar disorder. This means the vast majority of us are stumbling through life like everyone else. (This means that sometimes people with bipolar disorder do things like lie — just like everyone else.)

Living with Bipolar Myth #5: We Are All the Same

I run into people constantly who have had a bad experience with a person with bipolar disorder and thus assume they would have a bad experience with everyone with bipolar disorder. This just isn’t true. While there are similarities to people with bipolar disorder — we all have a brain disorder — most of who we are is unique. Yes, we experience elevated moods like mania or hypomania and low moods like depression; those are the similarities, but other things are unique to us. Some of us like chocolate, others vanilla. Some of us would hold a door open for a little old lady; some of us wouldn’t. Some of us are assholes, some of us aren’t. Those things aren’t about our bipolar disorder; they are about us. We can’t blame everything on bipolar disorder, and neither can you. We deserve to be treated as individuals, just like you.

What It’s Like for All of Us to Live with Bipolar Disorder

When I talk about living with bipolar disorder, the fact of that matter is that it’s different for everyone — even in regard to the experience of symptoms. I am an expert in bipolar disorder; I have been writing professionally about it for 14 years, and I have been living with bipolar disorder for 26 years and even I can’t tell you what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder for any individual. Bipolar disorder is a highly varied illness. The only way to know how a person experiences living with bipolar disorder is to ask them.

Image: © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


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