How I Explain Bipolar to Family and Friends

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 14, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

When the doctor told me I have bipolar disorder, the very first question I asked was, “What’s that?” It wasn’t that I’d never heard of bipolar before -- I just didn’t really know what it meant.

It occurred to me, in that moment, that being aware of something and understanding something aren’t even remotely the same thing. The people around you are probably aware that bipolar disorder exists, but it’s likely going to be up to you to help them understand it.

After explaining my own diagnosis countless times over the past 14 years, I’ve come up with kind of a formula for walking people through it -- here are the five basic steps:

Step 1:Remain calm and nondefensive. As frustrating as it was that my loved ones didn’t understand my illness, I had to keep in mind that at first, I didn’t understand it, either.

You’re in the role of teacher, and the person you’re talking to is a student. Good teachers don’t get angry with students -- even the bratty ones.

Step 2: Give them the official definition, and credit the source. I suggest something along the lines of, “Per WebMD, bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme changes in mood, from mania to depression. Between these mood episodes, a person with bipolar disorder may experience normal moods.”

Suggest that they use trusted, respected resources to learn the medical definition of bipolar disorder and how it's diagnosed. I’ve often found that loved ones start to recognize the symptoms in us as they research.

Step 3: Tell them the story of how you came to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Sadly, many of us are at a crisis point when we are diagnosed. I was in a psychiatric ward because I was suicidal, paranoid, and delusional.

When I explain this to people, they become aware of just how serious this was. I was hospitalized and surrounded by medical personnel -- all of those people took my illness extremely seriously.

It’s important not to exaggerate. Just explain what brought you to the doctor, what symptoms you were suffering from, and why you needed help. Our stories are very compelling, and many people aren’t aware of exactly how we found ourselves diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Step 4: Let them ask questions, even questions that may be offensive.

While it is frustrating to be asked when we’ll get over bipolar disorder and just be normal, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we wanted to know the exact same thing at some point in our lives.

In general, people just don’t know how to carry on a discussion about something this serious. Our society stumbles over conversations about love and death. I’m a 40-year-old man who talks to people publicly for a living, and I can count on one hand the number of times in the last decade I’ve told my father I love him. And I assure you, I do.

Step 5: Be patient. I call this step the “Rome wasn’t built in a day” step. This isn’t a "sit down, have a 5-minute conversation, and everyone is immediately on the same page” kind of topic. It’s serious and deserves to be carefully considered.

In our society, people will spend hours discussing their favorite movies and TV shows to entice the people around them to watch. I once spent the better part of a year talking my grandmother into trying Indian food for the first time.

It’s important to remember that bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness and therefore will involve lifelong conversations. As we change as people, get better treatment, and learn new coping skills, the effects of bipolar will shape us differently -- and that will need to be communicated to those around us.

Don’t be annoyed by constant questions about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. Embrace it, because it means the person cares enough about you to ask.