Recently, someone I know to be an otherwise compassionate and intelligent person made a comment that seemed to be minimising the seriousness of Bipolar II. The comment itself is not really important, and it’s possible that I read the tone wrong (although I did not mishear the content). The way it was made reminded me of a friend I once had who dismissed bipolar as a “casual illness.” It wasn’t that the comment was made in an unkind way; it struck me as uninformed. This surprised me, because it was not said by someone I would expect to be uninformed, and not said by someone I have known to be dismissive; yet the comment was both.
Essentially, the person suggested that Bipolar II is not a “serious” illness and doesn’t cause “severe vulnerability”, as compared with other illnesses which are much harder to “recover” from (my thoughts on “recovery” are available here and I believe, and have seen, that people can and do experience recovery from and within all sorts of illnesses, even those deemed most severe). I hear this kind of thing a lot: “just” depression, “just” [insert any number of illnesses]. But in my experience, “just” depression, “just” Bipolar II, are things that can actually kill. As in, quite literally, cause death.
What I wanted to say/ should have said/ didn’t say to this person, is that I don’t have the luxury of taking bipolar lightly. On more than one occasion, I have almost lost my life because of it. On more than one occasion I have lost friends, jobs, opportunities, because of it. I will probably be taking medication for the rest of my life. I will always be sensitive to the changes in my mood, the way a sailor learns to be sensitive to the wind. I cannot afford to take any period of wellness for granted, and I can’t afford to be flippant about it. If you can, then count yourself lucky, and educate yourself on the topic before you say something. (The person, by the way, did acknowledge that there were things that s/he didn’t know about bipolar/ depression. Which is absolutely fine, most people are not walking medical encyclopedias. But if you don’t know something, it is probably better to do a superficial google browse before dismissing as casual the illness of a person you know has that illness, in front of that person).
I know where I’m fortunate, by the way. I know that (especially at the moment, not being consumed by any particular mood) I am lucky, and I have zero interest in playing a game of comparisons. I am also aware that some people are impacted much more severely by bipolar (I or II) than I am (currently). My point isn’t that my particular mental state, at this particular time, is better or worse than that of anyone else. My point is that it isn’t the name of the illness that should shape your perception of it. “Personality disorder” or “bipolar” or “schizophrenia” or “PTSD” are all different conditions. The severity of each varies from person to person- not necessarily from diagnosis to diagnosis. No two people, with the same diagnosis, will be impacted in the same way by it. People can and do have periods- even long periods- of stability within the trajectory of their illnesses of any kind. Some illnesses have higher “recovery rates” than others, some have lower “relapse rates”, the likelihood of recurrence varies. But you should never put the word “just” before anything. It disrespects the experiences of the person with the problem. It makes you look like you don’t really care.