Backtracking here … some official words about mental illness

I realized the other day that though I started this blog in part to share my experiences with mental illness, I haven’t necessarily given some good definitions of the term or the different kinds of illness that people may experience. As I have written about how I feel and continued to get feedback from friends, I realize that I haven’t made clear enough what exactly “official” mental illnesses do, and how they are different from the regular ups and downs that everyone experiences in normal life. So here goes.

From the National Alliance on Mental Illness comes this information about depression:

Unlike normal emotional experiences of sadness, loss or passing mood states, major depression is persistent and can significantly interfere with an individual’s thoughts, behavior, mood, activity and physical health. …

Depression occurs twice as frequently in women as in men, for reasons that are not fully understood. For more please visit NAMI’s section for Women and Depression. More than one-half of those who experience a single episode of depression will continue to have episodes that occur as frequently as once or even twice a year. Without treatment, the frequency of depressive illness as well as the severity of symptoms tends to increase over time. Left untreated, depression can lead to suicide.

Major depression, also known as clinical depression or unipolar depression, is only one type of depressive disorder. Other depressive disorders include dysthymia (chronic, less severe depression) and bipolar depression (the depressed phase of bipolar disorder). People who have bipolar disorder experience both depression and mania. Mania involves unusually and persistently elevated mood or irritability, elevated self-esteem and excessive energy, thoughts and talking.

Now for a definition of bipolar disorder, also from NAMI:

Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months. This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly. Cycles of high (manic) and low (depressive) moods may follow an irregular pattern that differs from the typical ups and downs experienced by most people. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can have a negative impact on a person’s life. Damaged relationships or a decline in job or school performance are potential effects, but positive outcomes are possible.

Two main features characterize people who live with bipolar disorder: intensity and oscillation (ups and downs). People living with bipolar disorder often experience two intense emotional states. These two states are known as mania and depression. A manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability and/or euphoria, along with several other symptoms during the same week such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure-seeking and increased risktaking behavior. On the other side, when an individual experiences symptoms of depression they feel extremely sad, hopeless and loss of energy. Not everyone’s symptoms are the same and the severity of mania and depression can vary.

More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Because of its irregular patterns, bipolar disorder is often hard to diagnose. Although the illness can occur at any point in life, more than one-half of all cases begin between ages 15 and 25. Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.

As I do believe I have mentioned, it seems apparent (as much as is possible with these complex brain issues) that I have a form of bipolar disorder. One doctor, who has written a fine book and puts information on a website as well, has a great explanation that is quite detailed showing what a broad “spectrum” of symptoms people can experience anywhere between the “unipolar” extreme of clinical depression and the other extreme of “bipolar I,” which includes manic episodes and full delusional mania. For a really detailed explanation, visit Dr. Phelps’ site on this particular topic. In other words, I’m somewhere in the “middle of the spectrum.”

I’d say I’m typically a fairly “normal” person. When I’m feeling pretty normal, I manage to weather ups and downs of life with maybe a little complaining and some irritability. I think most people understand what THAT’s like! But when I’m pushed outside of those “normal” chemical boundaries, then I find it either impossible or much more challenging to weather the regular ups and downs with my regular coping tools. I am on medication that makes it much easier for me to stay in the “normal” frame of mind most of the time. But even so, medication doesn’t put me in that “normal” place 100% of the time. I still end up in an extreme irritable state or depressive place every so often.

One point I’d like to make clear is this: as Dr. Phelps says:

Depression is Not a Moral Weakness.

It Has a Biological Basis. 

He shows there are real proofs to back up this statement.

A view of the hippocampus from

The other point to make clear is this: doing the normal things that “normal” people do who are facing some sadness or frustration won’t kick someone who has a brain chemistry problem back into healthy chemistry and normal ways of seeing things. Trying to put a smile on your face or just counting your blessings or looking at all the positives won’t do the trick entirely. I’m not saying they’re not worthwhile, but if someone has gotten into clinical depression, those “tips” won’t fix it.

That’s why I am writing about this topic. I’d like more people to understand what it feels like, what it means, to grapple with a mental illness. If you haven’t grappled with it yourself, it’s hard to grasp what it’s like. So I hope that by writing here, I can bring more understanding to those of you who know me or someone else who does have a chemical/biological issue. I’d like to feel that when I say I’m getting depressed, I’m not just complaining about how life is a little extra hard. I’m actually saying I’m struggling and I need support. I’m asking for help. (And honestly, I don’t do that very often, I think. I like to go out and help other people, but I hate feeling “weak.”) And I think this is what many others in my situation are trying to express as well. I don’t want to be seen as a whiny complainer who needs to just buck up and get a stiff upper lip and understand that life can be hard. I just want to be understood a bit more as someone who has a particular biological problem that sometimes makes life a little more challenging to deal with than usual.

I don’t know how successful I’ll be. I just hope that I can reach a few people. If I do, I suppose that’ll be success. Thanks for trying to learn more and understand!

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

2 thoughts on “Backtracking here … some official words about mental illness”

  1. I have depression and an anxiety disorder. I don’t know if you’re open to reading anything about it (I’m usually not), and I know that everyone’s experience is different, but I’m reading a book right now that’s actually been kind of helpful. It’s called “The Mindful Way through Depression.” And…I totally understand if you choose to ignore this comment. 😀

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