Explaining Our "Crazy" Behavior: Life is More Complicated Than a Bipolar Diagnosis
A common theme on the “Ask” forum here at BipolarConnect is patients and loved ones inquiring if a particular behavior can be attributed to bipolar. Violence? Anger? Hostility? Stealing? Heightened spirituality?
Trust me, bipolar has been implicated in every category of sin throughout history (not to mention the odd virtue or two). Could the people who ask these questions be correct? Yes, or course. But life tends to be a lot more complicated. Here’s one example:
“Job” asks: “If hypersexuality is part of being bipolar, why is it mainly only with strangers?”
Hold on, if you go with the “bipolar hypothesis” to this, there is no way to answer this question. Otherwise, Job would be the obvious beneficiary of his wife’s (let’s call her Jane) urges. But Jane isn’t interested in him. She needs to have sex with strangers.
Bipolar may be part of the equation, but clearly other stuff is going on, here. The only way of finding out precisely what would be for Job to talk to his wife. Possible talking points:
Jane may be addicted to novelty
“The Sopranos” constantly riffed on this theme, and prison populations are full of these types. Basically, the brain doesn’t get enough dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in motivation and pleasure and reward. Novelty addicts often wind up engaging in extreme and highly-risky behavior to experience the type of buzz most of us take for granted.
Perhaps you recall this Soprano’s episode:
Tony and Chris are on their way to important business somewhere in Pennsylvania. They stop off the road for a pee break. Tony notices two motorcycle gang members loading contraband into a warehouse. Tony gestures to Chris.
Keep in mind, Tony is the responsible one in this relationship, Chris’ father figure, as well as a Jersey mob boss who needs to set a good example. But it’s play time. While the gang members are inside, Tony loads the contraband left outside (crates of wine) into his SUV. Chris follows suit. Both are laughing their asses off.
When the gang members emerge (we find out they belong - if my memory serves me correctly - to the Vipers), Tony and Chris flash their weapons and mock them mercilessly ("Ooh, the Vipers, what boy scout troop is that?). The two finish loading up, then screech off into the night, shouting, yee-ha, as gang bullets whizz all about them.
Hours later, lubricated to the gills on their contraband wine, Tony and Chris are still laughing. They are content. Being drunk is only a secondary chemical fix. The two are high on dopamine. Someone had to shoot at them, first, but obviously the outcome was worth it.
Others seek out novelty in far more constructive ways, such as writing a symphony or whitewater rafting. Jane, with her penchant for casual sex, is not one of those people.
The relationship has long passed its novelty phase
Helen Fisher PhD of Rutgers has done a lot of research on this. Essentially, sex is at its most intense during the initial going, as well as obsessing on one’s partner. A lot of this, predictably, is driven by dopamine. Eventually, things settle down and new hormones take over.
Most of us are wired to make the transition, but some of us are not made for long term relationships. The spark has gone - time, for some of us, to move on.
Jane’s hypersexuality may be a personality trait
Personality traits are heritable, though not necessarily deterministic. Some of us enjoy sex more than others. In itself, this is neither good nor bad.
Bipolar may have something to do with it
When we get manic, we do crazy things. Also - a fact which goes under-recognized - when we are depressed we tend to engage in risk-taking behavior to make us feel better.
Everything is connected
Nothing operates in a vacuum. Thus:
Jane may be a novelty-seeker in a marriage devoid of novelty. But obviously she is not into getting her novelty/danger/dopamine fix by jumping out of planes with badly-folded parachutes. Novel sex is her way of seeking thrills, a trait wired into her baseline personality. Even the best lover in the world - perhaps Job - is going to have a limited shelf life with an individual like this.
The bipolar? This adds a new dimension and a new danger. One possibility is the bipolar is not the cause of Jane’s hypersexuality, but it poses a major obstacle should she try to change her ways. Contrary to what people may say, change is possible. By putting in the work, perhaps Jane can learn to master her basic instincts. Perhaps things go fine for a year. Then she has a manic episode. Suddenly, she is not in charge of her brain …
Disclaimer. explanation, and conclusion
Everything here is only speculation. I do not know Job’s situation, nor that of his wife. In my answer, I simply encouraged Job to consider possibilities to raise as talking points with his wife. It may be that the two of them decide that my reasoning is way off-base.
Here’s what I’m really driving at: We all fall into the trap of assuming that our bipolar is the driving force behind all our various behaviors. But the brain, with its 100 billion neurons aligned in infinite connections, is way too complicated for that.
If we (or our loved ones) are concerned about some destructive behavior of ours, we need to dig far deeper than just bipolar. Chances are, a lot more things are going on, and if that’s the case we also need to investigate how all these possible causes and complications interact.
Viewing our thoughts and feelings and actions through the one-dimensional lens of our bipolar diagnosis simply is not going to cut it.
Be smart, dig deep, live well …
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.