What is Bipolar?

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;  
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,– you’re straightaway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.
Emily Dickenson


What is bipolar disorder?

The term bipolar denotes alternating periods of Mania and Depression.special-needs-camp (1)_0

Mania is a state of ecstasy and freedom.  Of the two poles referenced by the term ‘bipolar,’ mania is the emotional high; depression the emotional low.  The Emily Dickenson poem above and the picture of the exuberant girl to the right represent dimensions of splendor in mania  that transcend normative experience.

A common misconception is that manic states are not open to therapeutic exploration –that they are nothing but biproducts of biological circuitry.  However, even modest attention in therapy to manic experiences reveals a rich and complex psychology.

Mania often includes an influx of thoughts that can be disturbing at times, but the pressure of those thoughts, the frequent sense of euphoria and grandeur, need to be understood in the context of the person’s life.  The ideas and ambitions that develop in a manic state need to be appreciated on their own terms, however extravagant.

Mania has a terrible downside.  Recognition of the virtue of manic experiences should never eclipse a view of its dangers and the potential for great emotional suffering.  While in a manic state a person may become impulsive,  irritable, and lose sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others.  In the process, a person may experience great loss and destruction in their lives–cherished relationships, job loss, and in some cases suicide.

The psychology of mania

Mania is most often an attempt to break free from what are perceived as intrusive and oppressive forces in one’s life.  The bipolar individual possesses an inner vitality that refuses submission to an under-nourishing authority–to mandates that direct one to live his or her life inauthentically.

Traditionally, mania is thought of as a defense against depression.  At the same time, it is also a movement toward something–for example, an attempt to establish freedom, or pursue a grand aspiration.  Bipolar individuals are noted for their non-traditional thinking and are disproportionately represented in fields such as writing, music, comedy, acting, and poetry.



The psychology of bipolar depression is intimately related to the psychology of mania.  Because it lacks solid ground, the manic experience is unable to sustain itself.  With the collapse of mania, a crushing depression follows.  All the exalted visions of possibility come to appear as impossible.  Life feels hopeless, stale, and deadened.  The individual becomes acquainted once again with an unsatisfying life structure.  This is a point in which many individuals see psychotherapy.

Depression may involve feelings of seemingly endless misery, hopelessness, and worthlessness.  Common thoughts may be, “Things will never get better,” and “I deserve to be miserable.”  There is a loss of interest in life, relationships, sex, and disturbances in sleep.  Dreams of a good life are deadened.

The experience of depression is not just a distorted way of looking at the world;  there is a realism to it–a recognition of the loss of certain possibilities, loss of loved ones, and realizations about the shortcomings of life itself.  So like mania, depression should be understood not as a neurological problem but a human one.