Family

What does bipolar disorder look like? This photographer will tell you.

Bipolar disorder affects over 5 million Americans, but actually living with it is a story in and of itself.

What does bipolar disorder look like? This photographer will tell you.

A few months after Danielle Hark had her first child, she fell into a deep depression.

Photo from Danielle Hark, used with permission.

Danielle is a professional photographer and writer. While everyone gets bad moods sometimes, this was different. It wasn't just a bad day or even a bad week. For two years, it felt like a weighted blanket had fallen over her. She had to fight that weight every day. Even simple things like getting out of bed or walking the dog required extra effort.


Meanwhile, her brain was whispering that she was a burden to the people around her. She pushed people away — friends, family, even her husband — not out of disaffection, but out of a misguided desire to save them from having to deal with her.

Eventually Danielle went to a doctor to try to get help overcoming this depression. They had a different diagnosis though: bipolar disorder.

We all have things we have to carry, and mental illness wasn't new to Danielle. She had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety in college. Still, bipolar disorder ... that felt like too much to accept.

"I pushed against it at first," said Danielle. She pictured bipolar people as violent or unstable. "I was like, no, that's not me."

But when Danielle looked closer, the diagnosis perfectly matched her symptoms.

For some of us, "bipolar" probably conjures up images of Two-Face, the half-scarred Batman villain, whose mood can change on a coin flip. But the disorder actually looks a lot more human. Imagine someone suffering from clinical depression, except, every so often, their brain decides to throw an extra wrench into the works.

That wrench is mania. Mania is like the weird, upside-down cousin of depression and it can cause someone to feel jumpy or energetic. Some people feel overly irritable or prone to risky behavior, while others might get a rush of creative ideas.

Danielle will sometimes combine lights and clocks with long exposures to create light paintings like this one. Photo from Danielle Hark, used with permission.

As it turns out, that actually fit with Danielle's experience. Danielle said there were periods, especially when she was younger, that she'd find herself barely able to sleep. Instead, she'd pace around the house, feeling revved up and bombarded by ideas. During those times, she'd be compelled to take pictures, thousands of pictures — not stopping until the camera's SD card ran out. To her doctor, that sounded exactly like a manic episode.

Bipolar disorder sucks, plain and simple. And Danielle isn't alone in having to deal with it.

About 5.7 million Americans have some form of bipolar disorder, sometimes known as manic-depressive disorder.

It affects all races, classes, and genders in equal numbers, though there are actually a few different forms of the disorder. Some people get faster cycles, for example, or might get a milder version of mania called hypomania. Age-wise, it often appears in a person's mid-twenties, but can strike at any point in a person's life.

As for how and why it happens, medicine is starting to figure out both, but slowly.

Photo from Danielle Hark, used with permission.

Research suggests that bipolar might happen when there are changes in how a person's brain processes chemical signals between cells or when there are subtle changes in the wiring between brain regions.

Genetics isn't destiny ... there still needs to be some event or stress in a person's life to trigger the disorder.

As for why it happens? We do know it's at least partly genetic. We've known for more than a hundred years that bipolar disorder can run in families. Today, more than 80 genes have been identified that might contribute to someone's risk level.

This might seem like good news, scientifically, but for a mom like Danielle, it added a whole new layer of stress.

"Many people think that people with bipolar disorder shouldn't have children," said Danielle.

That said, genetics isn't destiny. There have been cases of identical twins, for instance, where one had it but the other didn't. Science suggests that some people who carry the genes may even have special changes in their brain's wiring to help avert the illness.

Experts think that while genes are a major contributor, there still needs to be some event or stress in a person's life to trigger the disorder.

Bipolar disorder is chronic, which means, unfortunately, most folks have to come to terms with it being part of their lives forever.

"The real struggle for me was accepting that I have bipolar disorder and accepting that that’s just a small piece of who I am," said Danielle. It's something she has to live with, but it doesn't take away from her identity as a photographer, or a mom, or a wife.

Photo by Danielle Hark, used with permission.

She says that she sees now that the diagnoses aren't meant to be labels, they're meant to be treatment plans. And medications, like lithium and antidepressants, can help, as can doing things like pinpointing and avoiding triggers or stresses and avoiding drugs or alcohol. Certain therapies, like dialectical behavioral therapy, can work too.

Danielle says she's actually found her photography work to be helpful as well. When she's stuck chasing intrusive thoughts, looking through a camera lens helps her focus on what's directly in front of her, breathe, and come back to the present moment.

Photo by Danielle Hark, used with permission.

Thanks to these techniques, Danielle's learned how to not only weather both the manic and depressive episodes, but head them off before they begin.

This is a story about bipolar, but it's also a story about humanity because we all have heavy things to carry.

Sometimes they're external, but sometimes they're internal too — like a brain that just decides to go a bit haywire. And the truth is, bipolar disorder is tough. It sucks. It's a difficult hand that's dealt to a lot of people who don't deserve it.

I wish this is something we could cure right now, but we can't — we can manage, but not cure. As research goes forward, though, we're continually getting better at understanding where it comes from and how to deal with it.

But for now, for this moment, what can we do? We can respect each other's loads.

We can try to practice a little empathy by listening to the stories of people like Danielle. We can help out where we're able. And, hopefully, we can all find a way to carry our own things just a little more lightly.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Those of us raising teenagers now didn't grow up with social media. Heck, the vast majority of us didn't even grow up with the internet. But we know how ubiquitous social media, with all of its psychological pitfalls, has become in our own lives, so it's not a big stretch to imagine the incredible impact it can have on our kids during their most self-conscious phase.

Sharing our lives on social media often means sharing the highlights. That's not bad in and of itself, but when all people are seeing is everyone else's highlight reels, it's easy to fall into unhealthy comparisons. As parents, we need to remind our teens not to do that—but we also need to remind them that other people will do that, which is why kindness, empathy, and inclusiveness are so important.

Writer and mother of three teen daughters, Whitney Fleming, shared a beautiful post on Facebook explaining what we need to teach our teenagers about empathy in the age of social media, and how we ourselves can serve as an example.

Keep Reading Show less