When asked about it, Carrie Fisher explained bipolar to a young boy at a panel as “a kind of virus of the brain. It makes you go very fast or very sad. Or both! Those are fun days. So judgement isn’t one of my big good things. … I’m just like everybody else, only louder and faster, and sleeps more.”
This is the best explanation I can think of, because it touches upon both the depression and mania that characterize the illness.
But here’s the thing about mania: unless you’re truly self-aware, you don’t notice it.
Being bipolar, I’ve experienced mild mania (not to the point of psychosis); hypomania (you feel impulsive, yet [generally] don’t act on it); and crushing, paralyzing depression. I’ve also had mixed episodes, in which you feel the effects of both depression and mania, like Carrie explains.
People know more about the depressive side of mental illnesses — the awareness of mental illnesses continues to grow, and depression and anxiety are at the forefront. It’s not surprising — the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million adults in the US, and depression affects almost 16 million.
Bipolar disorder — originally called manic-depressive disorder — is not as common. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that it affects almost 6 million adults in the US. It tends to develop in the late teens to early twenties, and there are two types: bipolar I, and bipolar II. People with bipolar I tend to experience full-blown mania — more on what that’s like later — whereas people with bipolar II tend to experience hypomania, and more often experience the lows of the disorder.
I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar I when I was 20 (I experience swings more than four times in a year). It did not come as a surprise – I had been experiencing mood swings several times within a month, and the nearest available appointment with my psychiatrist was three months out. (Thus, I swung back and forth between mania/hypomania and depression more than 10 times before I was seen.)