Bipolar or Bi-Winning?

By Tyger Latham, Psy.D.


Charlie Sheen’s very public unravelling recently had many people questioning whether the actor may be experiencing some type of manic break.  After months of tabloid drama, the Two and Half Men star went on ABC’s Good Morning America and spoke candidly about his erratic behavior.  He described himself as a “total freaking rock star from Mars” and in almost the same breath, referred to himself as a “Vatican assassin warlock.”  Sheen was also honest about his drug use, stating at one point that he had abused drugs, including “a drug called Charlie Sheen.” 

It’s hard to say for sure whether Sheen is bipolar.  Such diagnoses should only be made after reviewing a patient’s full medical history and ruling out other possible medical explanations.  With that said, Sheen is certainly exhibiting many of the symptoms we commonly associate with the disorder.  When asked if he was bipolar, Sheen responded, “What does that mean?  I’m bi-WINNING.”  And truth be told, he might be right.  There are several health conditions that often mirror the symptoms associated with mania.  It’s not unheard of for individuals with similar drug histories such as Sheen’s to undergo drug-induced psychoses; likewise, withdrawal from many drugs can look a lot like mania.  Whatever Sheen is dealing with, however, one thing is clear: the guy needs help.

Bipolar Disorder is a disorder often misunderstood but frequently associated with creative individuals like Charlie Sheen.  In her book, Touched with Fire, Kay Jamison, Ph.D. has suggested that many artistic geniuses have suffered from bipolar disorder and argues the mood swings associated with the disorder are in fact an important component of these artists’ creativity.

There have been quite a few Hollywood celebrities over the years believed to be bipolar.  Marilyn Monroe, for example, was known to have struggled with erratic mood swings, leading some to speculate she might have had the condition.  The American actresses Carrie Fischer and Linda Hamilton have also publicly acknowledged their struggles with the disorder.  Linda Hamilton, known for her commanding performance in the Terminator movie saga, revealed she was diagnosed only after 10 years of “amazing brilliant” highs and lows that felt “like falling into a manhole and not being able to climb out no matter what.”  She says she now has the disorder under control and reports her quality of life has improved dramatically.     

Likewise, there have been several prominent artists and writers known to have suffered from the condition.  Vincent van Gogh often wrote to his brother, Theo, that his artistic output often fluctuated with his mood.  When his spirits were up, van Gogh reported being able to paint with fervor; when down he described being paralyzed with fear.  The poet Emily Dickinson is another artist believed to have been bipolar.  In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, John McDermott, MD examined Dickinson’s writing and persuasively concluded that the poet’s productivity closely correlated with her significant mood swings.

So, what are the signs a person might be bipolar?  Bipolar is not a diagnosis to be made lightly; however, here are a few of the most common symptoms associated with the disorder:

1. Great mood. The disorder is associated with highs and lows and it is the highs that are the hallmark.  Mania is more than just feeling good; it is almost always associated with poor reality testing and grandiosity.

2. Inability to complete tasks. Starting and never completing tasks, particularly ones that are overly ambitious, is another hallmark of the disorder.  People who are manic often go from one unrealistic project to another, never completing any of them.

3. DepressionThe flip-side of mania is depression and when people “come down” from their mania, they can sometimes experience bouts of depression that are every bit as intense.

4. Irritability. Some people with bipolar suffer from what is referred to as “mixed mania,” in which they experience symptoms of mania and depression at the same time, often resulting in intense irritability.

5. Rapid speech. “Pressured speech” is one of the most common symptoms of the disorder.  If you have ever sat with a bipolar individual, you will discover quickly that it is nearly impossible to get a word in edgewise.

6. Alcohol and/or drug use. About half of all bipolar individuals are believed to have a substance abuse problem.  In many cases, alcohol and drugs are used. 

7. Erratic behavior. When manic, people often exhibit an inflated sense of self-worth, causing them at times to become impulsive.

8. Irregular sleep. People who are manic often have less need for sleep.  In fact, establishing a regular sleep schedule is one of the first things doctors recommend for bipolar patients.

9. Flight of ideas. Bipolar individuals often complain of having racing thoughts that they cannot slow down.

If you suspect you or someone you know is bipolar there is help.  People who suffer from this disorder often respond well to medication.  In my experience, this disorder is definitely manageable because of its generally positive response to mood stabilizers such as lithium.  In addition, it is important people with the disorder maintain a healthy lifestyle of eating properly, sleeping, and exercise.  Finally, seeing a therapist, one who is knowledgeable and trained in mood disorders such as bipolar, can be beneficial in helping a person manage their symptoms.

Source Psychology Today

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Will Savage

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