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I'm Too Smart to be Bipolar - Intelligence and Mental Illness

June 21, 2011 Natasha Tracy

I've been wrong about a lot of things in my lifetime. Life is funny like that, always moving the ball when you're not looking.

And one of them was this: I thought I was too smart to have a mental illness.

I'm Intelligent

I'm a pretty smart gal. I come from intelligent stock. I test well, even. My intellect is my safe haven. Don't bug me, I'm Thinking.

And over the years my brain and intellect has served me very well indeed. I figured out much and survived much muck with that big brain of mine.

So when I discovered I had bipolar disorder some part of me thought I could beat it. With my brain.

Beating Bipolar with my Brain

I'm sorry to say this isn't remotely true. Mental illness does not discriminate based on intellect. No one pre-qualifies you for bipolar disorder by checking your IQ. The smartest person in the world is every bit as vulnerable to mental illness as anyone else.

CB028842And what's worse is intellect can't "fix" bipolar disorder either. I thought if I researched enough, learned enough, did enough therapy, thought enough, philosophized enough, broke down enough, wrote enough that my brain would figure out how to not be bipolar. I had thought my way out of recursive C programming and discrete mathematics for gosh sake; how hard could it be?

As it turns out, very hard.

I Know About Bipolar Disorder

I know more about bipolar disorder than anyone I know. This includes most doctors. Because all I do is learn about it. And write about it. And talk about it. I'm a bipolar wonder. I've forgotten more about bipolar than most people will ever know.

And it doesn't matter. Big Brain Natasha can't fix bipolar. As much as I want there to be an answer nestled in a research paper or hidden behind a psychological construct, there just isn't one. Knowledge might be power but it's neither inoculation nor cure.

Mental Illness and Intelligence

And so I've now learned three things:

  1. There is no such thing as being "too smart" to have a mental illness.
  2. Intellect cannot "fix" a mental illness.
  3. You can be every bit as smart with a mental illness as you can be without. Having a mental illness doesn't mean you're unintelligent.

I know; some of that seems obvious. No one thinks they're "too smart" for cancer. But these things are harder to assimilate with diseases of the brain. Over and over though, I am reminded mental illness is just like any other illness. The same rules apply.

  1. Smart people get cancer.
  2. Smart people die of cancer.
  3. People with cancer are as smart as everyone else.

Perspective. My brain at least can give me that.

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

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, June 21). I'm Too Smart to be Bipolar - Intelligence and Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/06/im-too-smart-to-be-bipolar-intelligence-and-mental-illness



Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

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

Luke Short
January, 25 2017 at 12:54 am

Dear Natasha and fellow readers,
It is refreshing to read other people are of a similar disposition to myself. I am a young graduate who is aware- and have been diagnosed- of my own schizophrenia and bipolar tendencies. However, I am also so intelligent that I have never been able to fit in in normal society, I have never let anyone in other than a doctor. However, I Intend to prove your original idea wrong. We are all capable of using what we know to treat a "malfunction". I will not let this mental affliction prevent my success and impair my ability to be happy.
In my opinion, we are all products of social construct and genetics; I know this is potentially reductionist, overlooking the fact that we may be unable to perceive what we are a product of, but please just bare with me. Science has shown that if we change the social constructs/routine, over many years this can change our genetic code and of course our attitudes. These attitudes in turn change your routines which after conditioning change the brains ability to release and receive/react important hormones; to list a few, dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, oxytocin etcetera.
Thus If we can drastically deconstruct and rebuild the social contructs surround ourselves, we can alter irrational thought processes and irrational behaviour. Of course, if you are a catatonic schizophrenic whose issue lies in a more biological symptom then this will be a much harder thing to accomplish. Like wise, if your bipolar tendencies are so prevalent that you are unable to destruct and reconstruct your surrounding social constructs then this will also not work for you.
I however am not. I am on the cusp of uprooting all I know, I am purposefully leaving my family and friends. I am consciously uprooting everything I know in the next two weeks and working as a foreign professional teaching linguistics over 1000 miles away. Whether I succeed in maintaining the reconstructed constructs in my new location is another matter. But I fully intend to try and prove you wrong. The undercurrent of this comment was to firstly let anyone else who is reading this to know, you are not alone. secondly was to agree and disagree with the original post from Natasha; your high intelligence does not exempt you from mental illness, yes I agree. We would be arrogantly self destructive to not. However it does Arm you with the tools necessary to defeat it, it just matters how much you can afford to do. Hope is not lost. Peace be with you all, we are not alone in this fantismal psychological war. Only through understanding one another and ourselves can we win.
If there is any questioning regarding my logic or science please ask, I am happy to provide references if needed. Criticism is the only way we can improve and form new method.

Anupriya
December, 13 2016 at 11:41 pm

Perhaps because mental illness is not a function of "lack of intellect (IQ)" but a function of lack of EQ? This isn't to say that you're "weak" to not handle your emotions but self management skills for any mental illness including bipolar include emotional self regulation, mindfulness etc., right? So we can safely say that recovery & cure would require one to be more emotionally intelligent than intellectual :)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Meg
August, 27 2017 at 9:46 pm

Bipolar has nothing to do with emotional intelligence. We can learn skills to HELP manage our symptoms which are related to our emotions but the brain has abnormalities. Bipolar is rarely managed without medication because it is an illness not our inability to handle emotions. Read up.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Meg
August, 27 2017 at 9:49 pm

Unbelievable how much some people have to say without having the hard info to back it up, but just their suppositions. Luckily you would never find such comments on a bipolar site where people actually have experience and facts to back up ideas.

Brenda
June, 28 2016 at 10:43 pm

I wish :(:

alx
March, 23 2015 at 7:50 am

This is so close to home...
my probably bp ex wife was so smart, so easy figuring people and their relationship problems, at ease with scholar and sciences understanding, like a math intuition in everything in life, brilliant, organized, processing tons of informations perfectly.
Emotionnel intelligence on the other part would be very low, black & white, rage & tears from on bad news, or extreme laughters and jumping around on good news, anxious in the inside for almost anything, relaxed on the outside when in public, diplomacy, cooperation, compromise would not be on the agenda. generating conflicts, frustrations in everyday life, creating "walking on eggshells" patterns, extreme events to live fully, unnecessary dramas
the rational brain is powerful and intelligent but completely disconnected from the emotional - soul one. which had to shutdown since youth...in case of abusive treatment the two brains had to disconnect in order to cope and endure the abuse, rationalizing :"this will pass, let's laugh about it, it's not so important" on one side when the soul was bleeding to death and no one would be there to give a hand. emotions would have been processed by the intelligent mind only, with learned intelligence behaviors mimicking, this is the correct answer to this kind of event, even if this is not how I deeply feel about it.
I feel for instance her emotions have been repressed or not taught properly, even if home was the worst place to be,( abusive emotional patterns from parents) she has shown a happy face for decade, nobody would assert her anger, sadness, confusion, disgust...every angry emotions have been buried, often the only way to cope is to try to understand the world, how everything works, keep the mind busy to divert from dealing with these emotions, which makes the brain fusing at extreme pace, thus developing enhancing rational intelligence.
Her emotions would be very easy triggered by movies or stories, she would be the most empathic person I know, yet, it's like emotions would be oriented for outside events and people only, inside emotions would be inexistent, forbidden to be expressed.
it seems the extreme emotional moods are burn outs, wrongdoings in the brain chemistry when logic and intelligence can no longer take over the emotions, that leaves the person in the impossibility to express her emotion, sadness or disappointment becomes rage when a nice look & smile becomes a seductive pattern, as if emotions were binary, as far as I am concerned I feel it has to do with self awareness, self knowledge, being assertive , self esteem strength, and rebuilding emotional intelligence from scratch could be a way to heal, like for a child at 3 years old. ( no condescendent judgment here, just studying the subject for months and conclusive on the pattern, worth giving a try, i don't believe in medication, those are symptoms coping not healing in any way.
Fortunately, it was not the case for us, but self harm, suicidal ideation would be some kind of extreme frustration to not be able to let those emotions out, spinning around in an infinite loop, creating need to shut down behaviors towards the good or bad emotions for good, to end this looping misunderstanding between I feel this but acted like that to feel something at least.
very interesting socially speaking, very difficult to understand and to live with, the extremes are very disturbing for the other emotional intelligence, a bit out of pace as I felt it, mimicking the extreme moods or feelings of the disturbed one. And when it crashes on the loved ones, as if they were the original abusers...it hurts. I hope all this makes senses, english is not my mother tongue, My 2 cents though, i'm still searching, trying to find ways to understand how to help the love of my life, I found that she can only help herself, I don't want to cope, support, enable or though love her, I want her to heal completely, without medication, I believe in the power of the mind and the soul to rewire wounds, send you hugs and good energies to you and your loved ones, until next time

Julia
May, 7 2013 at 6:34 pm

I don't think the two are causally related at all. I don't know of any studies regarding mental illness and level of intelligence, so I wouldn't put any stock into what one or the other of has experienced, so to speak. That's only anecdotal and really doesn't speak to the larger picture, which is what we'd need to have any real indication. Even then, the relationship would not be one of cause, but rather correlation, if in fact there were a significant finding.
All that said, I can relate to similarly anecdotal experiences. Particularly with ocd, whoever mentioned that. Also the writer who talked about the rational vs irrational conundrum. What a plague, because you can't help yourself...even when you DO have and USE all the tools known to man. Anyways, just my thoughts on an always interesting topic. Good night!

Debby Hamidian
May, 7 2013 at 1:50 pm

That's funny. When I found out I was bipolar; I thought that's why I think so different and catch on quickly. Often, I suspected something to do with politics etc. When my friends or family heard my analysis and basis of it; they would crack up laughing. then, it would come out on the news years later. They would acknowledge me. I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It was very serious depression throughout my life with everyone not believing it. I would meditate about how happy I was and it would just go away. Then, when my father died; I knew he was murdered, Finanally, I knew everyone was involved and they were going to kill me. I was found under my neighbors bush being ate my fire ants. I endured the suffering from being bitten because I didn't want to die. I was embarrassed about 5 yrs and almost became a secluse

aaron david
May, 4 2012 at 9:56 am

the most intelligent people and creative are bipolar bar none . do some research!!

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John
July, 17 2011 at 4:30 pm

I am so smart that i owned schizophrenia without any medication or whatevar so... yea... i heard voices in my head now everythings sound strange and wierd for me... i feel really happy so yeah i win at life

pseudonym
June, 29 2011 at 9:40 am

I thought I was too smart, tough and strong to have those kind of problems too...
I don't think I have bi-polar disorder, but I definitely have emotional problems. I was actually diagnosed with adaption disorder because I was sexually assaulted, tased, pepper-sprayed and just generally brutalized by police and a female correction officer six years ago. I'd reported it - and was then prosecuted for reporting it. I ended up knuckling under and taking a plea deal - serving eight months in jail. My court-appointed attorney had practically begged me to, as I was facing 18 years in prison.
Now that I'm out of jail and have moved to another state, I tried to report the incident to the department of justice, but in that state (WI), the law allows the local authorities to regulate themselves. There is no state oversight. I also reported it to the FBI. They are currently looking into it as a possible civil rights violation.
I went to therapy for several months before accepting the plea bargain...but then my insurance ran out. The main problem I had with it, though, was they kept trying to prescribe anti-depressants. I wasn't depressed about the whole thing...I was angry - and scared (anxious). So anti-depressants din't really help...they just made me feel scatter-brained. They prescribed anti-anxiety medication as well...which did help - but my counselor insisted I should be on both and stopped giving me re-fills for the anti-anxiety meds...
I guess I still haven't "adapted" to it because now I just drink or take pain medication (oxycodone when I can get my hands on it)...to numb the overwhelming thoughts and feelings I still have about the whole situation. I don't do either to excess - but I worry sometimes about the damage I'm doing to my liver and kidneys...probably my pancreas too, and heart - although I think there are a lot of "legitimate" medications that cause that kind of damage also.
The talk therapy available (counselors, SA advocates, groups) all feel so damn inadequate. Not to mention, most of my family and friends just can't seem to relate to me anymore...and that's when I'm totally sober. When I'm a lil high, I get along with everybody just fine. And I haven't had any more run-ins with the "authorities" either...
BTW, I lost my job...got fired when they put me in jail - so no more insurance. And I can't find another one to suit my abilities - mainly due to my "criminal" record.
I think a fascist/conformist society can also be a major cause of mental/emotional illness for intelligent people...especially when recognizing the hypocritical standards this society applies to certain citizens, other countries and cultures. This system does things that are just as bad, or allows them to happen by ignoring it...or blaming the victim(s).
Not to mention, in america - "criminal justice" is a business. We have the highest rate of prisoners in proportion to our population of any country in the world. And I'd be willing to bet a very high percentage of those people suffer from mental illnesses which were probably the cause for their incarceration in the first place. Their families probably just din't have the resources to get them treated. And I can tell you from personal experience, being incarcerated only makes a person more dangerous when they get out - especially if they're intelligent.

Natasha Tracy
June, 28 2011 at 7:50 am

Hi Deborah,
"I’m intellectually smart and most definitely feel betrayed by my mind in having bipolar. How can my mind shift my moods and emotions and thoughts in such bizarre ways! "
I know that exact feeling. I know the exact feeling of betrayal. It's horrible. My intellect has always been my one, safe place and to think I can no longer trust it seems radically unfair. And almost unbelievable.
But I'm glad you're learning to accept it. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do but work with it, because it's not going anywhere.
- Natasha

Norm Miner
June, 27 2011 at 2:23 pm

Hi Natasha,
Ever since I was a child I recall trying to think my way, feel my way and or see my way through a mental health walk. As early as six and seven I remember my parents rushing me out to the "veranda" where my body convulsed as I gasped for air. It seemed like the porch on the old Victorian was like a free space, where time on the veranda stood still. An open wicker couch or settee stood ready to gift the afflicted with seizure-free comfort. The veranda and my Mother taught me how to breathe and especially how to relax. But it seems that sometimes the disease, the illness, the "crazy" ness, will not relax. In a blind rage, bipolar can be rude and ugly. Being the child of an alcohol-problemed, bipolar, also suffering from WWII battle hardened PTSD I can attest to often foregotten wounds in the traumatized family. Don't get me wrong, I loved my Dad and I believe I honor his memory best by caring for my own illness to the best of my ability. In my Bipolar walk I have done hurtful things, that I caused pain to Friends and Family is without question. For my part in any unnecessary pain I am truly sorry. I hope that this entry brings you some relief as that is my intention.

Deborah
June, 25 2011 at 9:43 am

I'm new to this bipolar path, and very much fell into the trap that I could think my way, smart my way, out of this. I'm intellectually smart and most definitely feel betrayed by my mind in having bipolar. How can my mind shift my moods and emotions and thoughts in such bizarre ways! But I'm coming to some acceptance finally that I have bipolar and I can't fix it away.

Laurie
June, 24 2011 at 2:26 am

There is a secret stigma I've discovered -- if you are a highly cognitive "consumer", getting social services can be a challenge. Bluntly, it seems that if you are not drooling in a corner, if you understand your illness and have good ideas about how to cope with it, social services agents often question the very idea that you are truly ill. I find myself very frustrated in dealings with these agencies. Even with four hospitalizations in two years, I have been denied case management because I am "too articulate." Go figure.

Dan
June, 22 2011 at 3:53 pm

One thing I would like to hear more about is that most of the people with mood disorders seem to be of above average intelligence. That is my experience at least.

Abby
June, 22 2011 at 2:11 pm

In terms of mental illness in general, I'd like to think I can outsmart my OCD - or at least make it go away through sheer will power. Unfortunately, I can't do that, and that's hard to reconcile. The cosmic irony in all this is you know you're thoughts are irrational. Yet, the disorder makes you keep thinking them. My brain says stop and my brain says go.

Alivemor
June, 22 2011 at 2:04 pm

The heartbreak about this is watching a loved one who had such a promising future because of his high intelligence go through three psychotic breaks and finally be diagnosed with Bipolar disorder then have to rebuild a new life. He has endured terrible suffering because of stigma and a difficult mental health system, inept or overworked doctors and yet he has come out strong. There may be a relapse in the furture but my hopes are high. He takes his meds faithfully, has a wonderful psychiatrist who sees him regularly, doesn't drink or take drugs, goes to the gym faithfully, watches his diet and has a "schedule". That takes a lot of intelligence. I am very proud of him.

Natasha Tracy
June, 22 2011 at 2:00 pm

Hi DeMarcus,
Good for you for looking for help. You can't get better alone. Believe me. I know.
See your doctor for help. Have him refer you a psychiatrist and psychologist. You don't need a research group, you just need a doctor.
And then you need time. Give their help a chance.
Good luck.
- Natasha

Sonya Holt
June, 22 2011 at 12:35 pm

Eveytime I think I am well , I'm not, bad things happen terrible events occur such as my recent black eye, the thing is I can't explain bi-polar to others without coming off as crazy, which I know I am not, however, I do have bi-polar and everytime things start going well I start enjoying the high too much and then subsequently everything goes wrong....too many beginnings! I would still rather be me though, but I know I can be better with it...I have some reading to do! Sonya

Alistair McHarg
June, 22 2011 at 7:02 am

Hi Natasha: The point is well made. Bipolar disorder is fundamentally an emotional illness, not an intellectual illness. I'm sure you know as a rule people with bipolar disorder skew higher than average in intelligence. When people like us, who have relied on intelligence all our lives, find that our minds have betrayed us and are no longer reliable, we are shaken to our boots. - Healing simply cannot occur in isolation, no matter how clever you are. We bipolars are a very arrogant lot, and many us do not realize how badly we need others - even the less-clever - in time. If I may quote myself - "The greatest gift that thinking ever gave me was the means to learn that thinking would betray me." Alistair

Kellie
June, 22 2011 at 6:58 am

I feel the same way, I know a ton about being bipolar, I also though I could fight it with my knowledge cause you know its a chemical imbalance and whats going on is just that messing with you right? Yeah I finally broke down and got the help I needed still a long road ahead but now I know my path.

Angela McClanahan
June, 22 2011 at 6:50 am

to the contrary, i really believe there is a correlation between above-average intellect and mental illness. all the "real smart" people i've ever known have been crazy, and most of the "real crazy" people i've known have been highly intelligent. and no, you can't think it away. oh that that were possible!

DeMarcus
June, 22 2011 at 6:50 am

Funny that I see this today because I've been feeling like I can beat this disorder and find that I can't...I just can't I researched about a lot of mental illnesses and discovered I fit the bipolar mood disorder tryin to figure out what was going wrong during my teenage yearrs around when I was 16... I'm only 26 now and I never wanted to go & get diagnosed as being crazy...I didn't wanna be on medications...I'm too smart for that I can beat it...the same way u tried....hmmm...I rather count my losses now & get help but I have no clue who I need to talk to one of these research groups or something...do I have let them completely into my head...what do I do now feeling as I can't beat this

Natasha Tracy
June, 21 2011 at 4:39 pm

Hi Jake,
"The thing that has screwed with my thought process the most about bipolar disorder is that I cannot think it away."
Yup, I know the feeling.
And actually, this is one of the harms of antipsychiatry as well. We, personally, have our own challenges in believing we can somehow just make the illness disappear. We get over our own challenges only to have people say we were right all along - there is no real illness, we don't need meds, see, brain fixed!
We all want to intellectualize it. I'll let you know if I find a way.
- Natasha

Jake
June, 21 2011 at 4:26 pm

I wish I could intellectualize away depression.
It would be easier and more uni-dimenional if that was all it took.
The thing that has screwed with my thought process the most about bipolar disorder is that I cannot think it away.

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