A face-off within the brain

On the day before the Super Bowl, Barret Robbins of the Oakland Raiders was nowhere to be found by his team. According to published reports, the next day, he said he couldn’t remember where he was, and he was hospitalized for depression and put on suicide watch. Some say they saw him in a bar earlier, talking about how depressed he was. Now, it is believed Robbins, who was sent home from the biggest game of his career, has bipolar disorder.

“Someone who has bipolar disorder is someone with severe mood swings, which go from extraordinary highs to extraordinary lows,” said Victor Molinari, a professor in the Department of Aging and Mental Health at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at USF.

These extremes are called mania and depression. Someone in a manic state may become more irritable, demonstrate unrealistic expectations in their own abilities or go without sleep for days. Beyond that, bipolar sufferers may go on radical spending sprees or begin to abuse drugs or alcohol. Because the sufferer feels so good during their sprees, they’ll deny anything is wrong with them.

“When we’re in a manic state, we think we’re the best person on the world,” said John Massolio, who has bipolar disorder. “Actually, we can be pretty sarcastic and obnoxious.”

Bipolar disorder was once called manic depressive illness, and it affects approximately 1 percent of the population, more than 2 million American adults. Symptoms normally begin to show during early adulthood.

The survivor

This was true for Massolio. In 1981, he suffered a manic episode while on an airplane. When he arrived at the business meeting to which he was traveling he was escorted out of the plane in restraints and confined in a quiet room at a psychiatric hospital for three days.

Two years earlier, Massolio had a less severe episode and was told by a doctor that he had manic depression. The doctor prescribed him lithium, a drug used to control mania and prevent re-appearance of episodes. When Massolio returned home, he threw the pills in the toilet and told his wife that he wasn’t crazy, unlike the doctor. He then set into a two-year period of denial.

“The most difficult thing to try and get someone to do is to stay on their meds,” Massolio said. “We don’t want to accept the fact that there’s something wrong with us mentally.”

After the manic episode on the plane, Massolio was forced to accept his illness, he said.

“I couldn’t walk out of that room and deny that something was wrong with me,” he said.

When he returned to his home in Illinois, he attended a self-help group and then decided to help out.

“I remember sitting in that room thinking if I ever get out of here, I’m going to do all I can to help my fellow man,” Massolio said.

When he moved to Florida 20 years ago, he didn’t find any self-help groups in Tampa. He was then introduced to Anthony Reading, former chairman of USF’s department of psychology, and they decided to change that situation.

Together, they began the National Depression and Manic Depression Alliance. Because there was a stigma attached to the term manic depression, the group recently changed its name to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

“We changed the name to extend services to those who felt less stigmatized,” Massolio said.

Massolio said anyone who thinks he or she may have bipolar disorder should find a self-help group.

“In support groups, we make people realize you can get better if you just accept treatment,” he said.

The diagnosis

Bipolar disorder is diagnosed by talking with patients about their symptoms, observing their actions and looking at their family history. The criteria for diagnosing bipolar disorder are described in the Fourth Edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders.

Sometimes, children who suffer from bipolar disorder aren’t diagnosed because their symptoms are dismissed as normal behaviors for people their age. For example, when in a manic state, children may be more irritable, and their actions may be written off as hyperactivity. If depressed, children may not perform as well in school, or they will complain of headaches and stomachaches. In fact, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that 33 percent of the millions of children and adolescents with depression in America may be in the stages of bipolar disorder.

Research has found that bipolar disorder has genetic links. If one parent has bipolar disorder there is a 15 to 30 percent chance that their children will have the disorder. If both parents suffer, the chance increases to 50 to 75 percent.

However, bipolar disorder isn’t only genetic. In sets of identical twins, both don’t necessarily suffer. Some evidence shows that a faulty nerve transmission may be part of the cause also.

The treatment

Occasionally, bipolar disorder is misdiagnosed. Massolio said an overactive thyroid could have the same effect on people as bipolar disorder. Using drugs can also lead to mood swings. He also said some people might suffer from bipolar without knowing it, and when they have a depressive episode, turn to drugs or alcohol, leading to co-occurring disorders.

“They’re self-medicating themselves, but they’re really covering up a problem,” Massolio said.

Bipolar disorder is treated with drugs, such as mood stabilizers and anti-depressants. Sometimes drugs are used in combination with each other because they often prove to be more effective that way.

“With treatment, people with bipolar disorder can resume normal functional lives,” Molinari said. “Many great creative artists suffer from bipolar.”

Its rumored that Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh and Abraham Lincoln all suffered from bipolar disorder.

Massolio said he uses a mood stabilizer to control his episodes, and he hasn’t had one in 10 years. Also, Massolio said he’s glad to have been diagnosed.

“I’m so glad to know who I am,” he said. “I don’t have a problem anymore because I know what’s wrong with me.”

He now works for the Florida Health Partners as consumer affairs coordinator. Those who work for the company have all been diagnosed with a mental disorder, or had a close family member with one. Massolio deals with people in the area and speaks at schools and to private groups, sharing his life experiences free of charge.

Contact Louisa Ogle at oraclefeatures@yahoo.com

To contact John Massolio about bipolar support groups, call (813) 246-7219.

Also visit www.ndmda.org for more information about bipolar disorder