Writing bipolar characters

I’m not linking to the exact post, but a writing blog I follow got an ask about writing a bipolar character. They responded by telling the writer to do a lot of research and really think about why they wanted to write the character as bipolar, and if they should, and so on and so forth.

My Official Bipolar™ Opinion:

I would rather have more frequent, potentially problematic, happen-to-be-bipolar characters, than none but the exhaustively researched. As long as it’s not the most generic offensive sort of portrayal, it’s worth trying. If you mess up, which you probably will, it’s not the end of the world. Just own up and try to do better next time. It’s okay.

Secondly, things to consider:

1. Are you talking about Bipolar I or Bipolar II?

Quick sum-up: Bipolar I is generally what people think of, with full-blown manic episodes, and at least one serious depressive episode. Bipolar II has hypomanic episodes (less severe than full mania; no psychosis or need for hospitalization) with serious depressive episodes (which can result in psychosis and/or hospitalization). In general, people with Bipolar I skew more towards manic episodes, and people with Bipolar II towards depressive ones, which makes Bipolar I much more apparent. However, on average, people with Bipolar II spend more time “being” bipolar, cycle more rapidly, and don’t recover as well between episodes.

The difference is pretty significant for a dramatic scenario, since in all probability a sudden, severe episode is likely to be manic for someone with Bipolar I, depressive for Bipolar II. (That said, hypomania is possible and less drastic. It all depends on what you want to accomplish.)

2. What kind of medication is the character taking?

The response assumed antipsychotics, but even full mania isn’t always psychotic, and hypomania never is. As far as I know, antipsychotics are most likely to be used to treat acute mania until long-term mood stabilizers can take control. Anti-convulsants are frequently prescribed as mood stabilizers, since they can have anti-depressant and mania-preventing effects (actual anti-depressants can worsen symptoms, especially with Bipolar II). My medication generally has few side effects and works very well for me.

An important factor with many psychotropic drugs is that they have to build up in the system before they have any apparent effect. Likewise, they don’t cease to have effects until cleared out of the system. I have to miss dosages for 1-2 weeks before I notice a change (it tends to be gradual, but is sometimes very drastic). And that’s unlikely unless the character is very absent-minded or deliberately stopping without proper tapering, both of which would be fairly significant for their characterization.

3. All of that said, I think the simplest way to reveal that someone is bipolar is simply to say that they are, unless it’s historical/fantasy/whatever (in which case it’s pretty easy to code). It doesn’t need to be infodump-y; the character could just complain about it, or mention it in passing, as coulld someone else.

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