I’ve heard that there are manic depression cycles. How long are the cycles? Or does that depend on the person? Is someone who is bipolar out of the cycle for any amount of time?
The information you heard is correct. We do go through cycles. HOWEVER, it is also true that the length of the cycle and severity of the cycle does vary for each individual. When I try to describe what it feels like to have bipolar disorder, I usually compare it to being on a roller coaster. Depending on the type of bipolar that you have, that determines how high the highs will be, or how tall the top of the hill is on the roller coaster. If you are what is called a “rapid-cycler” then that describes how fast the highs and lows come, or how fast you are going up and down the hills of the roller coaster.
If you are diagnosed with Bipolar I, then part of your cycle is mania. That is the tip of the roller coaster hill. You can experience euphoria, a decreased need for sleep, and overall sense of that roller coaster running full speed ahead. Now, there is no telling how long the roller coaster will be running that way, and it doesn’t always happen the same way every time for each individual. Sometimes it can last a few hours, a few days, a few weeks… There are things that can help control how long that will last, but not completely prevent it. Taking your medication and following your doctors order on things like sleep patterns, stress levels, exercise, and diet can help the episodes duration.
If you are diagnosed Bipolar II, the tip of that roller coaster hill isn’t quite as high as the one on the Bipolar I coaster. I am Bipolar II, so I experience what is called hypomania. It’s not quite full blown mania, but we still run at a very fast speed and can do well on little sleep, but one of the things we don’t experience is the euphoria that someone with Bipolar I experiences. The duration of our hypomania is just like it is with mania, unknown duration but following doctors orders and taking medication can help reduce the time.
What happens when the mania or hypomania decide they are finished? Well, the roller coaster usually teeters just a little bit at the top of that hill and then goes zooming down, usually to rock bottom, which is the depression part of the cycle. The roller coaster sort of creeps along when its down there, almost mimicking the way we feel when we arrive and linger down there. Again, how long we stay in that state or in that part of the cycle is an unknown, but just like mania, this can be helped by taking our medication as prescribed, using our support system to help give that roller coaster a jump start, and using coping mechanisms along with other suggestions from the doctors like diet and exercise.
Once we get the coaster jump started, it’s inevitable that there will be another climb back up to the top of that roller coaster hill, the only unknown is how fast will it get there? Will it crawl up there or go shooting up there? Will it get to a certain point and just hang out there for awhile before it continues on its way up? It could very well do that. The cycle never changes, just the duration and frequency.
I am not only Bipolar II, but also a rapid cycler. My roller coaster goes up and down so quickly and so many times in just an 8 hour period, it almost began to impact my work. I would cycle up and down about 4-6 times through the 8 hour work day. I discussed this with my doctor and with a medication adjustment, it’s not nearly as frequent anymore.
As far as your question regarding someone with bipolar ever being out of the cycle, I would have to say that in my opinion, we are never truly out of the cycle. Having bipolar disorder is physiological and so our brain will always be like that. HOWEVER, that does not mean that someone with bipolar will not stay at a constant level for a long period of time. I have had times where I have gone several months without sailing to the top of the hill, some have gone years. It a truly a matter of how well you take care of yourself, take your medication, use your support system, and maintain yourself with healthy patterns. Those can all help in the length and intensity of the cycle. Usually, those with bipolar can detect certain things that are triggers for them and begin to understand how to either avoid the triggers or how to deal with the trigger so that if a cycle does being, they can try to minimize it.
While it does seem scary to think that this cycle is going to happen for the rest of my life, I know that after 2 hospitalizations, one 6 month outpatient hospitalization and continued care by my psychiatrist, I have been given the tools to identify triggers and avoid them as much as possible as well as how to maintain myself day to day to minimize the amount of ups and downs I do experience. By doing that, I am able to work a full time job, I am able to have the honor and privilege to write for this site and I am able to go about my day, tackling projects and running errands like any other person. I have been at the point where I couldn’t even leave my house though, which is why I know how important all of the things I have learned are to my ability to live each day as I do.
While this invisible illness will never go away, it CAN be tamed and the roller coaster doesn’t have to be so fast and so “hilly.” I hope this helped you understand the cycles we go through. If you have more questions, please feel free to submit additional ones!