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The First 48 Hours With Bipolar Disorder

You’ve just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. What now? Expert Patient John McManamy gives you his tips on coping.

By John McManamy

You never find happy individuals walking into a psychiatrist’s office for the first time. People with bipolar disorder only seek help when their life is going terribly wrong or when their brains have taken them hostage. Your situation is probably looking pretty bleak at the moment, and the last thing you need to be told is you are not normal—whatever normal is. "How can I live with a brain I can’t trust?" you may be wondering. "How can I face my family and friends and colleagues—the ones who are still talking to me, anyway? Will I ever be able to get my old life back, or what’s left of it?"

At the same time, you may be feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. Finally, someone has fingered your invisible nemesis and given it a name. Suddenly your whole life begins to make sense, and it has nothing to do with any moral or character weakness on your part. You’ve smoked the beast out into the open. For the first time in your life, you have a fighting chance.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Bipolar disorder takes no prisoners. You’re going to have to fight this with all you’ve got. Here’s what you need to know now that you’ve been diagnosed.

Your Psychiatrist Is Your Partner, Not Your Boss

Your psychiatrist has probably sent you out of the office with a prescription for one or more psychiatric medications. [ Read more about medications and drug information.] If you’re one of the lucky ones, the meds will work like a charm. Most likely, an extended adjustment period lies ahead. For starters, you are biologically unique, and no two cases of bipolar are the same. What works for one person may not work for you. Second, medications for bipolar disorder are by no means perfect. They may only get you half-well for now, and you may have to contend with troublesome side effects.

You have already passed your biggest hurdle: you sought help. Now comes your second-biggest hurdle: forging a working partnership with your psychiatrist. Forget about being a passive patient. Treating bipolar disorder is not the equivalent of taking statins and watching your cholesterol go down—if only life were that simple. All too often, patients quit in frustration when their meds aren’t working right, only to find themselves back in crisis days or weeks or even months later. Often, the problem lies with a psychiatrist who doesn’t listen. More often than not, the patient neglects to speak up.

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