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

seller said...

very good post

Anonymous said...

opinionated, generalized drivel.

Anonymous said...

great blog!

Kimberly Williams said...

Herpes is a serious and recurring condition that cannot be cured by drugs or injections by USA Doctors. But the best way to fight and get rid of herpes virus permanently is to take natural herbal remedies, I red about DR JAMES, the great herbal Doctor, who cures people of HIV virus with his powerful herbal medicine. I contacted him to find out how he could help me and he told me never to be worried that he would help me with the natural herbs medicine! After 2 days of contacting him he told me the medicine is ready and he sent it to me via DHL COURIER SERVICE and it got me in 3 days! I used the medication as he prescribed for me (MORNING and EVENING) and I was cured! It's really like a dream, but I'm so happy! For people suffering from the following diseases Alzheimer disease, Eczema,Shingles,MS,Bullous Pemphigoid,Diabetes, cancer,Pcos, hypothyroidism,vaginal rashes, Herpes, COPD, HIV, arthritis, Hpv, liver disease, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson's disease, Lupus and more should contact him for his herbal medicine, because I am a living witness and I was cured of herpes virus. and DR James medicine is legitimate. I sent him what he asked for and he sent me his medication which I took for 2 weeks and today I am here with a negative result. When I went for the test, I was so happy after I took his herbal mix medicine.CONTACT DR JAMES FOR A PERMANENT CURE Email:
He's a good man and he will help you

Rachelle Henley said...

I am so Happy to be writing this review here, i am here to explore blogs forum about the wonderful and most safe cure for HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS. I was tested positive to the deadly Virus, HERPES and i lost hope completely because i was rejected even by my closet friends. i searched online to know and inquire about cure for HERPES and i saw Dr Ojamo testimony online on how he has cured so many persons from Herpes Disease so i decided to contact this great herbalist because i know that nature has the power to heal everything. i contacted him to know how he can help me and he told me never to worry that he will help me with the natural herbs from God! after 2 days of contacting him, he told me that the cure has been ready and he sent it to me via FED-EX and it got to me after 4 days! i used the medicine as he instructed me (MORNING and EVENING) and i was cured! its really like a dream but i'm so happy! that i was cured. that's the reason i decided to also add more comment of Him so that more people can be saved just like me and if you need his help contact his Email: you can also contact him on mobile number and via whats app +2349077406037

You can check on his website for more info