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Rapid Cycling: Women and Bipolar Disorder

Rapid Cycling: Women and Bipolar DisorderWhen Kresta was a teenager, her family had called her a “handful.” Her parents joked that the reason they never went on vacations was because just packing would have meant enduring one or more of their daughter’s “colossal meltdowns.”

When she was 17, the family had almost left her in a museum parking lot in the sweltering heat of metropolitan Atlanta. She’d had one of her classic fits over where she and her brother were going to sit in the van and had stormed over to a bench to pout. She watched then, mute and miserable, as her family drove away. Her parents hadn’t realized she’d never made it into the van, and her brother didn’t choose to tell them for something like 10 miles.

Now a sense of abandonment was rising up again, opaque and inescapable, like the oppressive heat and humidity during the long wait alone in that parking lot—her husband was filing for divorce.

In the papers she’d been staring at for two weeks, in between clotted rages and endless sleeping spells, Kresta read the same words over and over: “increasingly erratic behavior and a record of emotional abuse.” How could he say she had abused him? She was the one being abandoned! And a record? Had their therapist been in on this? Maybe they were having an affair! Kresta was terrified and angry and every other emotion that is too big for nearly anyone to handle, and so again, she slept.

Two years earlier, people might have thought from the outside that Kresta was happy. She had a good job running an online retail business; she was making money and a name for herself as an entrepreneur. And Chris, her husband, was doing well in his job as a physical therapist. But behind closed doors, things looked different. The stress of keeping a growing business on track had Kresta “bouncing off the walls,” according to Chris, who Kresta believed refused to understand her. But increasingly, Kresta’s moods had become more and more unpredictable, the way even unpredictable things begin eventually to cease to surprise.

Here is Kresta speed talking, speed walking, shooting “big ideas” like laser beams right out of her eyes every minute of the day and night; she rarely sleeps. Here she is laughing, clicking her pen incessantly, running circles around everyone; they’re too exhausted to keep up. No warning and here is Kresta back in bed again, unable to drag herself from the sheets. She meets most of her deadlines but does it as though she is a harbinger of doom. Here she is growing irritable, restless, easily provoked. Anything can start a fight, even being unwilling to fight with her. She throws things, she raves. She is saying things, awful things, things that she can never take back. Here is Kresta sobbing.

She seemed to live like this for so long, in a world in which she believed this exhausting spin on an emotional tilt-o-whirl was normal, or at the very least, in a world in which denial was the only thing holding her just a little bit together.

Symptoms and Statistics

Rapid cycling is not a stand-alone diagnosis. Instead, it emerges as a symptom classification of bipolar disorder for about 10 to 20 percent of people. Approximately 2.5 percent of Americans—or 6 million people—suffer from some form of bipolar disorder. While both women and men are equally likely to be affected by this disorder, women are more likely to experience the symptoms of rapid cycling. Most people experience the onset of bipolar disorder in their late teens or early 20s; however the disorder can surface at any time.

Rapid cycling is characterized by the experience of four or more episodes of mania or depression within one year. Rapid cycling may come and go over the course of an individual’s disorder. For most who exhibit rapid cycling, the majority of the moods experienced are depressive rather than manic or mixed. This leads to a tendency in which bipolar disorder and rapid cycling bipolar features can be misdiagnosed as depression.


“Bipolar disease is treatable, that’s the most important thing,” explained Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author and expert on bipolar disorder. Jamison is a sufferer herself. While bipolar illness can be painful and even debilitating for so many people, scientific and therapeutic breakthroughs have been made over the decades since it was called “manic depression” and women were being treated for “hysteria.” Pharmaceutical treatments, while not yet an exact science, are helping countless people to curb and quiet their pendulum of swinging moods and to bring themselves to a more centered place at which they can better do the needed work in therapy or on the meditation mat—work that may be necessary in getting to the bottom of their bipolar disorder or its consequences.

Kresta may well need just that kind of biological support before she can begin to quiet a mind that has felt more like her enemy than her possession, and before she can begin to repair the physical supports of family—and, more importantly, self. She’ll need these foundations in place in order to begin again, building a life her very own.

Posted on September 20th, 2013
Posted in Women

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