Wednesday, January 10, 2007


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?


Anonymous said...

Informative post, Tory.

It would be interesting to use a bipolar character as the spouse/significant other of a main character. A lot of angst and personal conflict in addition to the main conflict of the plot.

Anonymous said...

Joyce: Yes, I think you can pretty much count on a lot of angst and personal conflict in your life if you live with someone with bipolar disorder.

On the other hand, your life will never be dull!

Anonymous said...

Lots of good information in this post, Tory. I just read a book where the protagonist's spouse was bipolar. It was women's fiction instead of a mystery, but it was a very compelling aspect of the character's relationship.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Tory. I am thinking of a friend who is manic-depressive and in one of her "up" phases started a new business, decided to have a baby, joined several clubs, began to paint the entire interior of her house and when I suggested maybe she was off the track a bit (I am watchful of depression in myself and we often talked about our shared problem) she cried, "If this is mania, I embrace it!" She crashed and burned a few weeks later.--Didn't get out of bed for months. It was wonderful for a while. Great post! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Kristine: Sounds very interesting. Who's the author?

Nancy: That's the "lack of insight" I talked about.

Anonymous said...

As mystery writers, we might tend to think of characters with bipolar disorder as our villains. ...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.

Wow, this is not only offensive, but incorrect. If you're going to post about bipolar disorder, please learn the actual facts of the disorder. Your commenters are thanking you for this informative post-you've spread your bias and false information to several other people.

Characters with bipolar disorder as villains is a tired stereotype. People with bipolar disorder aren't a bunch of violent people who live to commit assault, rape, torture, and murder. You're adding to the stigma that people with bipolar disorder have to live with because of uninformed people who spread false information.

As far as self-reflection goes, most people with mood disorders have invested an enormous amount of energy into understanding their motivations. I wish the same could be said for the general public.

I'd appreciate a post in which you retract the incorrect and biased information you gave about bipolar disorder.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in this:

You have a lot to learn. Start now.

Cathy said...

I wrote a novel about a woman who was recovering from bipolar disorder, life, and a bad marriage. It's somewhere under the shoes in the closet. The idea was to dispell the myths about this mental illness and to get people to admit to having the disorder. Too many deny it and don't seek treatment. Families deny it.

Now, Tory, you're telling me it's in style to be bipolar. Maybe that's a good idea after all. Glad to hear your professional thoughts on it all.

If the bipolar person takes the meds and adjusts the life style, she can live a balanced life and be a lot of fun, too.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see work capitalizing on the humor that a bipolar person may experience living with the disease. Being bipolar is not all bad. It's all crazy . . but, not all bad.

Anonymous said...

Really nice post, Tory. You're a great resource for everyone. I think the source of the nonchalance with which people label themselves as bipolar might be partly rooted in marketing. The new ads that have checklists prob. get more than one, simply irresponsible person, to come to you claiming bipolar. Or maybe they're genuinely in that kind of pain. I hate to guess. Can't imagine facing that...

Anonymous said...

This piece and all the comments are great examples of the many misconceptions that exist about people with bipolar, especially bipolar 1. I have bipolar !, yes I was in a hospital for a month the first mania, a week the second, and just the emergency room or the doctor's office for the others. I took depakote, seroquel if I can't sleep and now I am on lithium. I don't get depression. Yes I was in restraints, yes I thought I was God, yes I tried to save the world. However I am not on disability, I graduated from college and have a professional position that is sometimes 55 hours a week. I have been married for 11 years. Most people I know would be shocked if they found out I was bipolar, but it is my secret. I am a good person and a valuable member of society who is as happy as anyone else. So stop thinking bipolars are some kind of freaks that destroy their families and are a pain in the ass to have around. Those are just naturally pain in the ass people. They'd be that way if they did or didn't have bipolar.

Jimalee said...

Hi, I just wanted to say I enjoyed the whole post until I came across your comment that we "I am one" bipolar are a pain in the ass to work with. I "HATE H hate" going to therapy and all that crap so its a challenge for me to go. I was disapointed because you put in your post how bad you may hate to see us come.... for some like my instant (yeah I admit maybe stupid) thought was I dont wanna be a pain in the ass... so Im not gona go.... but other wise it was a great post. And boy could I write a book if I could only spell and keep on

Anonymous said...

Recent studies have attested to the fact that depression has a number of genetical factors attached to it. Depression does come to the next generations if the members of the previous generation have had instances of depression. Especially bipolar depression has been proven to come down to the next generations in case the previous generations had it.

Anonymous said...

I am a Bi Polar sufferer. Although I do have all the syptoms I wouldnt even think about committing a crime as I am still lucid enough to realise I could get in a lot of trouble.
I have been reckless and had thoughts of suicide, so I have been up and down the spectrum.

If you do use a Bi Polar character please dont make them the criminal, because I think you will find that the majority of sufferers, unlike psychopaths(who cant be treated) wouldnt do anything illegal.

Your post is very informative.

Thank you,

Karen, Wales

Anonymous said...

Bipolar disorder is known to afflict about 1.2% of the U.S. population, although its frequency may be much higher because almost 75% of cases go untreated or misdiagnosed. Men and women are equally susceptible. Much evidence suggests that the illness has a genetic basis, but its origins are still uncertain.

seller said...

very good post

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Anonymous said...

opinionated, generalized drivel.

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