Understanding Bipolar: Show and Tell

June 28, 2010 Natasha Tracy

When I was a kid, show and tell created the most memorable moments in school. Not the tell part. The tell was boring. We heard about Betty going to a “real, real fun zoo” and Bobby getting a new bike; this information made us shift in our seats, roll our eyes, and make funny faces at whoever was talking. But the showing, now that was great. We got to touch a slimy frog, hear Cathy scream as a budgie landed in her hair and be frightened as a snake’s tongue lashed out in front of us. Showing was where the action was.

But with mental illness, it’s never the show that people want, only the tell. People are frightened by, and run from, the show.

Boy Gives FrogTelling someone about bipolar disorder involves describing the disease, and how it affects me and others. It involves talking about medication, side effects, psychiatrists and psychologists. It involves talking about its impact at work, its impact on friendship and impact on love (Bipolar As Love Thief). It involves helping people to understand the facts around bipolar. It’s about shining some light onto our everyday issues. It’s about making you think.

This is distinctly different from showing.

Showing is shining a light on the sick brain. It’s about detailing the ill, destructive and harmful thoughts, and the actions they might drive me to take. It’s about forcing you to see the black, inky, bottomless well of a disorder that I have struggled with for over a decade. It’s about making you feel what it’s like to slice your flesh. It’s about making you feel what it’s like to have your only desire to be to die. It’s about forcing you to see the unbalanced, unreal, illogical and sick thoughts that I live with everyday. It’s about putting you into my head, unedited, unadulterated. It’s about making you feel.

And people don’t like it.

I understand this, I do. I don’t like it either; it’s just that have to I live there. But I think this type of writing and this type of experience is tremendously important. If I tell you I’m depressed, it means almost nothing. It’s a fact, like that my eyes are brown. If I tell you I’ve gone through 2 boxes of tissues in the last 2 days, that might mean more, but only slightly. But if I detail the actual thoughts and anguish that are part of this depression, then it starts to hit home. When I compare it to the death of your mother, from just last year, you start to get it. When you see me cry over an ad for dishwashing liquid, it starts to affect you.

girl-behind-fanMost crazy people can't communicate what it's like to be in their brain.

The trouble with showing is that not only do people not like being close to such dangerous crazy, they also start to attack me for expressing it at all. They tell me how illogical I’m being, how much help I need, how I’m not properly using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and how I’m looking at things in all the wrong ways. All of this is irrelevant. The expression of illness does not indicate a lack of fight, or a lack of therapy or a lack of positivity – it speaks to part of who I am. It’s not my totality, as it is not the totality of any person. It’s the ability to admit and be in touch with the gratuitous illness inside of me and express it.

Pain upsets people. Reality often does.

While telling is informative and useful, it will never allow you to really understand mental illness. Hearing about therapies won’t do it. Wunderkind success stories won’t do it. Discussing it at a cocktail party won’t do it. The only way real understanding is to be gained is to allow yourself to be in the same space as the illness. It’s putting your brain, even if for only a moment, into the brain of someone ill.

You have to pet the slimy frog, have the budgie mess up your hair and be scared by the snake. There is just no way around it.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2010, June 28). Understanding Bipolar: Show and Tell, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

AllUCanBe (Barb)
May, 28 2012 at 4:15 am

Hi Natasha,
Another wonderful post allowing a glimpse into the world of bipolar and done in an easy to understand way. Unfortunately it is in the "telling" that awareness and education is raised. There will always be those who are afraid or uncomfortable with hearing it, but honestly, in my opinion, those are the best ones to plant the seed with. They may not understand immediately or even want to hear it, but hear it they do and hopefully, something sinks in and helps them be more compassionate the next time they encounter someone struggling with any mental illness.
Doing what you do with your writing, the telling of your own personal story is the best way to shine the light. Keep it up!
Take care, Barb

misty breeze
July, 3 2010 at 4:02 am

wow! you actually stay the same for WEEKS?! If I ever had an idea I might be bipolar, this convinced me. At my age though, why would I try medication and therapy? After awhile you get used to yourselves, with any luck find a partner that understands the bad side, can roll with the flips and adores the great side.
once a week huh? that would be awesome.
and a psssssssssst to the pirate with no boat: beware the faeries who live to slay dragons. disguised in their gossamer wings, they can be fatal.

Natasha Tracy
July, 2 2010 at 8:46 am

Hi Amy,
Unfortunately, I know exactly what you mean. Just did a very nasty flip this week.
Thank-you for the compliment. I do so like it when I nail something.
- Natasha

July, 2 2010 at 6:45 am

Thanks for this post. Bipolar is so tricky isn't it? One minute I am ready to take on the world...advocate for others fighting the good fight, speaking up where no one will. A boldness and confidence that defies explanation. Now fast forward a few weeks and I am a mess. I am (barely) making it to work everyday. I can not look people in the eye. I long for my bed and to sleep away the hours. The voice in my head that tells of my lack of worth and use. I am tired. The urge to give up is so strong. I won't give into it yet the temptation is great. How can you explain this to others? How. Thank you Natasha. You nailed it.

Natasha Tracy
June, 30 2010 at 6:22 am

Hi Ricky,
I'm glad you liked the article.
I don't think you're rambling, you just sound frustrated at some of the ignorance seen around you. I think truly making anyone understand a disease is challenging, no matter what the disease. This one is just a bit more difficult because it cannot be physically seen.
People who share your disorder can be great support. I'm glad you've found us.
- Natasha

June, 29 2010 at 8:56 pm

Loved your article. I have been seeking treatment for bipolar depression for 3 yrs now after going through 15 years of denial. To explain this disease to a non-professional (and even they can be clueless ) is an endeavor I seldom embark on any more. I think if one more person tells me they have seen commercials on tv about meds that treat bipolar and they think they might be bipolar I Will Scream. There is not one thing fun or fashionable about my disease which seems to be the new disease of the day. Or if one more person tells me they get depressed every once in a while and I just need to "pull myself out of it" I will pull my hair out.
I am reaching out more and more to people with the disease because I have realized they are the only ones that really understand.
Please pardon me because I seem to be rambling a bit.

Natasha Tracy
June, 29 2010 at 8:11 am

Theresa, if there's one thing I know it's that you're not alone. I'm glad that helped you.
- Natasha

June, 29 2010 at 6:45 am

I did not that others suffered with wanting to die all the time and some other things you mentioned. I feel so alone with my illness. You have helped lift that. thanks!

Natasha Tracy
June, 29 2010 at 6:01 am

Hi Sarah,
I agree it's normal to want to "fix" someone (see White Knight entry) and pat answers like "don't feel bad" might be all person has to offer due to their (lack of) knowledge of the disease. People have suggested (sometimes vehemently) the most ridiculous things to me.
And I feel your pain about pain only being "seen" when crying. That's really tough. It tends to make us feel invisible. Especially when you consider that more of a "good" sign.
If it helps, know that many of us do "see". We're there too.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
June, 29 2010 at 5:54 am

Sandra, wow, what a compliment, thanks.
Yes, it's tough being psychicly naked in public (I talk about it in one of my first posts). And honestly, it frightens me. All the public judgment is challenging to deal with so I completely understand your desire to stay private.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
June, 29 2010 at 5:49 am

Herb - thank you for your feedback. Yeah, I know there's cringing going on. I would cringe at my life too. Now I'm kind of regretting the slimy frog metaphor though because I'm not slimy. Really.
- Natasha

June, 29 2010 at 2:19 am

So true, I think people are always looking for a solution to give when they hear about someone's problems. I think it's just a habit. Only people who've experienced something close to what I have can listen to me express my pain without jumping in with some simple solution. Even just telling someone I'm depressed can set off the suggestions. It's usually something like "don't worry" or "don't feel bad". My sister unfortunately likes to suggest expensive pseudo-therapies like NLP. My mother believes it all will pass. I think that's the problem, people want to think that there is a simple solution to this pain, or that it's temporary.
I don't cry when I'm depressed. I can't cry, but I wish I could. For me, crying is a sign that at least I'm experiencing normal emotions! Usually if I'm crying it means I'm upset but I'll get over it (even if I'm upset for no reason, at least it's short-lived). Yet, this is when I worry my partner the most. He can only see the pain when I cry.

June, 28 2010 at 8:36 pm

I've enjoyed your previous posts too, but with this you just became my fave blogger who writes about bipolar.
I used to publish a public and very personal blog. I showed, oh, did I show. (Pics included!) Although I gained some friends and fans a LOT of people just couldn't handle it. You very eloquently explain why.
Next time someone naively prods me to write publically about my experiences again "to break down stigma" I'm going to refer them to this entry.
Thank you so much!!

June, 28 2010 at 6:30 pm

Few bloggers are capable of capturing in writing the raw, brutal and heinous reality as well as the depths of despair of their very serious mood disorder.
Yeah, it’s unnerving and upsetting to the everyday common neurotic or so called normal that come across your blogs but you make readers obviously feel your reality (i.e. slimy frog).
You, Susan and a couple of others I’ve followed have that ability while making others cringe feeling you’re realities and experiences. I’ve lived with it for many years from a different vantage point and it sure ain’t purdy but you guys capture the essence of “the beast”.
Good job whether they like it or not; you evoke emotions.

June, 28 2010 at 4:26 pm

Then again most crazy brained people enjoy the sensation of showing how crazy we can be. Its a heady drought that can get out of hand very easy. I know I sometimes enjoy the exhilaration and the empowering feeling that comes from knowing I can probably leave almost anyone open mouthed with some crazy stunt I pull out of the blue just to impress some friends at a party. This can go from very cool to very scary and intimidating for others very fast. The feeling of power inside of you makes you look at others as if they were insignificant mortals and you are a deity or something.
That can make you do things to intimidate those whom you have perceived as being opposed to you, because they limit you, attack you or somehow have wronged you by showing them not the frog or the serpent, but the dragon inside you. Its so bad it not only damages the unsuspecting fellows besides you but oneself, because a dragon is a scary loathsome thing in reality and it will consume you inside out. So best keep it in its lair and try and find your inner dragon slayer and train him well, then send him off to the hunt. Of course this all metaphorical, but it is a thing that can really turn people into peasants with pitchforks off to a witch burning. We all know who the witches being burned back in those days were, so no need to mention it now.

Natasha Tracy
June, 28 2010 at 8:44 am

Yeah, people want to hear some sanitized "feel good" version of the illness. They don't want to be near the _real_ crazy. That stuff's scary! And that reaction to the reality of the disease makes us feel even worse.
And no, a crazy brain doesn't see things in a reasonable way. That's what makes us crazy.
Well, to be fair, I don't recall a specific commercial but such silliness has occurred.
- Natasha

June, 28 2010 at 8:24 am

Most people always want me to talk about my illness so they can 'understand' me better. But if I really muster the courage to talk about it....which means, more or express the awful truth, they don't wanna here it anymore or they try to downplay it saying: 'You're exaggerating'
They seem to forget that MY perception is not THEIR reality.
Crying over an ad for dishwashing liquid,eh? Recently I've been crying a lot over ads for cars...I don't know why

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