by Tory Butterworth
These days, bipolar disorder seems to be all the rage. This fall, I watched several TV dramas which diagnosed a character as "bipolar." Many of the patients at my community mental health center job described themselves as "bipolar." My co-leader and I used to come up with slogans for our orientation group. Hers was, "Teaching Pittsburgh they're not bipolar, one client at a time." On some days, that's how it felt.
I can't say I understand this societal phenomenon. Bipolar is a hell of a disease, and I wonder if patients knew how devastating it is, whether they'd choose to label themselves that way.
Bipolar used to be called manic-depression. People with bipolar disorder are constantly on a roller coast ride between severe depression and mania. On the depressed end, this can include feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt, changes in eating (over- or under-), changes in sleep patterns (can't go to sleep or can't wake up), and recurrent thoughts of death.
On the manic end, bipolar people experience feelings of grandiosity, believing they're capable of things nobody can do. At this end of the spectrum they often sleep very little, their thoughts race, and they can't stop talking. They tend to get involved in risky activities, such as unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments. Some feel more angry than expansive in their manic phase, or when they're on their way up or down.
As mystery writers, we might tend to think of characters with bipolar disorder as our villains. When they are on the manic end of their cycle, these people are more likely to behave impulsively and commit arson, theft, take drugs, or engage in reckless driving. Most patients with bipolar disorder have little capacity for insight into themselves and what motivates them, and so they are frequently a pain in the ass to deal with.
Still, the majority people with bipolar disorder are law-abiding citizens. I might suggest a few other ways to integrate bipolar characters into your stories. One of your suspects could be bipolar, as he or she wouldn't think to cover their tracks. Someone in their manic phase could easily become the victim of a villain, as they are often impulsive and "out there."
In the TV show ER, writers used a bipolar character to provide back story. They introduced the bipolar mother of ER resident Abby Lockhart, played excellently by Sally Fields. She helped viewers sense the frustration and unpredictability of Abby's life as a child as well as to empathize with Abby's intense need for control as an adult.
So, what other ways might you use a character with bipolar disorder in your writing?