Peter is a 42-year-old former entrepreneur from River Forest whose life was interrupted in 2005 when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since then, he has been under the care of Dr. Ann Sarpy, medical director of Thrive Counseling Center in Oak Park.
Recently, we interviewed both to learn what it's like to live with this condition.
How did you discover you were bipolar?
Peter: I have probably been bi-polar for 15 years, maybe longer. There were probably signs in college, maybe even earlier. I finally hit bottom when I tried to commit suicide in a strong manner — that was very close. My family, my friends, and the paramedic came, and in 2005 when I went to the hospital, that's when I was diagnosed. Before that, I was self-medicating with alcohol, which many people who are bi-polar do. It's a huge number, and suicide is a big problem because of the depression side.
What is the difference of being depressed, and being bipolar?
Dr. Sarpy: By definition, a depressive episode is when a person will have weeks and weeks of a depressed mood, including a change in appetite, maybe a sleep disturbance, … not feeling energy. That can be caused by a major depressive disorder, which means you will have those episodes periodically, or you could have hypothyroidism, which also involves depressive episodes. Bipolar disorder means you not only have those episodes of depression, but you also have a mania or hypo-mania — a feeling or state of high energy or euphoria.
The important thing is to note that a bi-polar person has depressive and manic episodes whereas a major depressive disorder only has depressive episodes. In either case, people will return to the baseline at some point, which is the difference between that and a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia, where, without medication, they may not return to a "normal" level of functioning.
With a person who has bipolar disorder, it's not about day-to-day mood swings. It's episodes. Untreated, and as time goes on, the episodes will become more frequent and more severe and more difficult to control with medication. So you want to stabilize someone as soon as possible.
How is life for you now?
Peter: I think I couldn't have come to where I am today without Thrive and the support of family and friends. But Thrive alone will not get you on the right path because there is no cure for this. The support of family and friends alone will not do it either. I believe that this can be a very lonely and serious disease and you need to ask for help. Please ask for help — often, and from anyone.
What role does medication play?
Peter: There are a lot of people out there who don't take the meds. They need to do it, but there are so many side effects. And it takes so long to get the right cocktail of meds. You have to go through the ups and downs because they don't start working for 3-6 weeks. So people get frustrated. I went through many sets of meds, probably 3-6 or more different combinations, to finally get to where I am today.
What role do families and friends play?
Dr. Sarpy: I think a family's role in all this is as much, or little, as a patient would like — if they are over 18. If they are under 18, it is a whole different story. They really do have a lot of support-group options via the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), and there is actually a drop-in center in Oak Park. Here at Thrive, what we can do is explain to the family what the diagnosis actually means. When they understand that it is not something volitional that their loved one is doing or not doing, that is one way they can lend support to their family member's [ability to function again], as much as the family can be involved in that in a positive way.
Considering what you have experienced, do you have any advice?
Peter: If I could go back and give myself advice from what I have learned over the last whatever years, I would say this: Stay on your meds, educate yourself, be pro-active with finding support, and talk things out with your family. Usually everyone wants to pin what is going on on drugs and alcohol, and that is just not the case. The doctor who first diagnosed me said you first have to take care of the bipolar disorder, before addressing any other problems, such as anxiety, alcohol, drugs, because the bipolar is the bigger part, and if you can't get that stable, you're in trouble.
Editor's Note: To continue the conversation with Peter, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.