Tag Archive: Dr. Phil

The Bipolar Detective

The Bipolar Detective (Photo credit: chris.bburn)


As someone who has bipolar disorder and who has worked as a peer supporter with others who have the disease I can categorically say “No”. In fact, many people with bipolar disorder have developed a heightened sense of compassion for others because of the suffering that they have been through. However I do acknowledge that we can and often do create havoc in other people’s lives. The question is not whether we are evil, but rather how responsible we are for our actions when we are ill.

First of all, I am not advocating the “anything goes” philosophy in regards to bad behavior by those with bipolar disorder. However I do want to point out that things are not always what they seem. Bipolar behavior is not always simply a problem of a person being in a bad mood and taking it out on others. It is a problem primarily of perception, not mood.

I can imagine the surprised look on people’s faces when they read this. But it is called a “mood disorder!”

Yes it is, and I am not arguing with the mental health diagnostic criteria set by professionals. It is a mood disorder. However speaking from my own experience it is much, much more than that.

For me, it is a disease that lies to me about my own reality. It tells me friends are enemies and enemies are friends. It tells me that no one loves me, that I am a bad person, and that the only solution is to kill myself.

The problem is that this isn’t the impression I give to others. They see my erratic behavior and assume that it is about them.  They also assume that I should know that. What they don’t understand is that I can’t make sense out of my own behavior, so how can I explain it to them?

Many people consider people with bipolar disorder to be inherently selfish. We are only as “selfish” as someone who deals with chronic physical pain, such as a cancer patient. It is natural for someone in extreme pain to focus on themselves. That is not a character flaw, it is human nature and completely normal. Unfortunately, when someone is in a lot of pain, it is easy to miss the fact that they may be hurting others.

There are also some people with depression or bipolar disorder whose problems go way beyond just mood difficulties, including me. I am talking about having a complete break with reality.

I saw an interesting Dr. Phil show the other day. The topic was about people using a bipolar diagnosis to get away with their “bad” behavior. It featured a mother and a sister confronting a woman who they said was abusive. I am going to comment on this, but I want to make it clear that I am not a mental health professional, but rather a mental health consumer who has spent time helping others as a peer mentor. My opinions are my own.

On the surface, it sounded like that this woman was in fact extremely abusive. She was responsible for sending her mother and sister to jail for allegedly kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant. They were both found not guilty but it cost her sister her job in the military. Naturally they had a lot of bad feelings about this because they felt that she had lied to the police about being attacked.

The lady who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder still maintained that this had in fact actually happened. As I watched this drama going back and forth my impression was that they were all telling the truth as they saw it. I saw genuine pain on all sides and I felt bad for their situation.

I waited for Dr. Phil to perhaps state a different alternative to the idea that one side or the other was lying, but he never quite made it there. I suspect it was because of legal issues that come with his working with the public on his show. First of all, he is not a medical doctor so he cannot make a medical diagnosis. Second of all, he actually had to give up his license as a therapist in order to do the show, because of strict confidentiality laws protecting clients. That of course does not mean that he is not a qualified therapist, it just means that he has to be very careful about what he says and does on his show.

I think he got very close to the real issue when he spoke harshly to the sister who supposedly had kicked her bipolar sister in the stomach. He said “Do you believe that your sister is mentally ill?” When she said yes, he replied “Then you are being mean and abusive to her!”

I think what he was trying to say to her was that there may have been more to the issue than just her sister telling lies (if in fact she really was).  She may actually believe that something happened that didn’t happen at all.

From personal experience when I had a breakdown on the job I accused an employee of saying something offensive to me that I now believe that he never said. I feel awful about that but I was in a delusional state. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. My erratic behavior eventually got me fired from my job, which was just as well because I was in no condition to work anyway.

Getting back to the Dr. Phil show, I can completely understand why her family was upset with her. At the same time I am not certain that she intended to hurt them. She may have genuinely believed that her unborn child was in danger. From that standpoint her behavior would make perfect sense.

I am certainly not saying that her family does not have the right to feel hurt and betrayed. But it sounds to me like they need to address that in private therapy on their own rather than to dump the responsibility on a person who maybe was not in her right mind at the time.

Now after saying all this, I do want to acknowledge that there should be limits on bad behavior by those with mental health issues. Sometimes it may be impossible for others to live with certain problems that come with the diagnosis.  That is an individual decision and I am not judging that at all.

But what I hope that I have done is open up a bridge of understanding for those who find their loved one’s behavior completely incomprehensible. Chances are it has nothing to do with you. For help for understanding your loved one’s mental illness I recommend going to the  National Alliance on Mental Illness website

A mother holds up her child.

A mother holds up her child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had a very powerful dream this morning. I was sharing a prison cell with a lovely young woman who didn’t seem to belong there since she seemed so nice. I was a cop who had been falsely accused of a crime (Ok I was Olivia Benson from SVU. I love that show!) When I was released and almost out the door, my cell mate came running up to me and said joyfully, “I finally know who I am!”

I puzzled over the meaning of that for awhile and then I remembered the Dr. Phil show that was on last week about maternal narcissism. Something about those women reminded me of my mother.

Now let me say off the bat that I don’t think my mother was a monster or that her behavior was as extreme as the guests that were featured on the show. However I recognized the distinct lack of empathy towards others and the tendency to make everything about themselves as traits that my mother exhibited during my childhood.

I have wanted to understand for a long time why my mother behaved the way she did, why she took my minor mistakes and misbehaviors as an attack on her. I am in a unique position where I can understand mental disorders from personal experience and therefore I have felt that if I can understand her then I can forgive her. However I know that she was not bipolar or depressed, although she could be moody at times. Her behavior was consistent towards me, regardless of her mood at the time.

This isn’t really about blame, it is about wanting to have compassion for her in order for me to move on.  And also having compassion for the child I was, knowing that the problem was not that I wasn’t “good enough.”

When I was four years old my maternal grandfather died. My mother’s relatives lived way on the other side of the country so we didn’t see them often. However we did go and visit them sometimes in the summer. Apparently I was very close to my grandfather, although I can’t remember him now. We visited with the family the summer after he died, and when we got there I was running around the house asking where “grampa” was.

My mother got furious with me, because she had already told me that he had died. I was “embarrassing her” in front of her family. She felt that they were judging her about not making me understand that he was dead. I have no idea whether they were or not, but that was the way she perceived the situation.

Somehow it never occurred to her that it was unrealistic to expect a four-year old to comprehend what death was. She made the situation all about her, and made it all my fault.

When I was a year and a half old and my sister was four and a half, our older brother died. I doubt that my sister understood completely what had happened, but it was made more real to her because she went to his funeral and his gravesite. She understood that he wasn’t coming back. In essence I think she understood the concept of death much better than most four-year olds.

Ironically, I don’t even remember the incident that my mother told me about and maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big deal except that I heard the story my entire childhood. It was all about how I had “shamed her” in front of her family. This was a continuing theme during my entire childhood that any perceived or real misbehavior was an attack on her.

My sister has told me that she felt that a lot of my mother’s behavior was due to ignorance about age-appropriate behavior in children. I have no doubt that this was true. But there was something even more basic that was wrong with her. She was completely unable to have empathy towards me. She couldn’t put herself in my shoes, not even for a minute. She was allowed to have feelings, but I wasn’t. As a result I felt completely abandoned and alone my entire childhood. She was physically there, but emotionally she checked out. Worse of all, I thought I deserved to be alone because I was such a “bad” kid.

I should have been allowed to grieve for my grandfather. Instead I was told to completely ignore his life and his death. I don’t even remember him now. I was young of course but I wonder if I might have remembered something about him if I had been allowed to mourn his loss.

Back to the dream I had this morning. This prisoner in my dream obviously represents me. And “knowing who I am” means knowing that I was an innocent child and that I can set myself free instead of remaining “locked up” forever. And freeing myself means that I can free my mother as well.

Update: Although I have worked in the mental health field for many years as a peer supporter, I am not a professional and my expertise is in helping those with bipolar disorder. I am not very familiar with personality disorders. As I have learned more about narcissistic personality disorder, I have figured out that my mother did not have all those symptoms. Still, her inability to feel any empathy towards me does fit, even if nothing else does. So I am keeping this post up, with the hope that it may help others.


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