Personal Finance

My Bipolar Disorder Wrecked My Finances

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Ten years ago I was a successful middle-aged professional with substantial savings and investments, an enviable real estate portfolio, and happily on track to my first million. Today, I am a 51-year-old woman with little set aside for retirement, living paycheck to paycheck, and a very long way from financial independence. Am I just another casualty of the global financial meltdown? No! My financial meltdown was very personal and localized. I call it my “manic money meltdown” and it was caused by my bipolar disorder.

Bipolar mania provides the perfect crucible for money troubles. Lately many people have become familiar with the concept of “the perfect storm” – a convergence of forces or circumstances that work together in the worst of all possible ways in order to magnify the intensity and impact of an already negative event. Undiagnosed and/or untreated bipolar mania creates the perfect storm for debt, overspending, ruined credit and financial chaos.

The symptoms of bipolar mania, when taken individually, can all be shown to create a predisposition for poor financial decisions. When several, or all, of these symptoms are combined, the likelihood of money problems compounds and amplifies. The disordered thinking of bipolar mania and irresponsible financial behavior share the same dark core. Wish fulfillment, selfishness, delusion, deceit, egomania, self-gratification, escapism – words often used to describe the psychic landscape of the financial profligate are strikingly similar to the experience of mania.

My Story

My own “manic money meltdown” was a combination of extravagant spending on clothes, luxury hotels and first-class international travel, time out of the workforce while I pursued irrational business and personal schemes with no earnings, and a ruinous divorce bought on by own crazy selfishness, infidelity and bizarre delusions.

Most people with bipolar disorder go many years before receiving an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. One of the ironies of my situation was that I was seeing a clinical psychologist for weekly therapy all through the period when I was shopping compulsively, liquidating my assets, throwing away my career, booking round-the-world trips and destroying my marriage. However, bipolar disorder is still so little understood that an expert completely missed it.

It was only the following year, by which time I had fled my marriage, squandered a small fortune, and made the strange decision to pay for an expensive graduate program quite unrelated to my profession at a university on the other side of the world that I ended up seeing the college psychiatrist. We had several sessions where she diagnosed acute anxiety and began trying to find a helpful medication. My casual mention of some weekend furniture shopping (I spent thousands of dollars on exquisite Italian furniture for my run-down, very temporary student apartment) set off alarm bells and led to my bipolar diagnosis.

Finding the cause

Diagnosing bipolar disorder often involves a psychiatrist asking a patient if he or she has indulged in unrestrained buying sprees, made any foolish business investments or spent (or wishes to spend) significant amounts of money. However, it is important to understand that it is not only reckless financial behavior that is a classic hallmark of mania. ALL of the symptoms of bipolar mania are ingredients in the recipe for financial disaster.

For example, bipolar mania is often characterized by extreme grandiosity – the delusional belief that one is special, superior and entitled. It is a state of mind where there are no consequences and no limits. Spending in this state is like simultaneously winning $1 billion in the lottery and having only six months to live. Not only does money appear limitless but it seems there will never be any day of reckoning.

It is not just the grandiosity and impulsivity of bipolar disorder that can create money problems. During mania some people simply give away money or possessions. Others gamble. One man I know sold his Rolls Royce for only $20,000 and then lost every dime of it within 24 hours by playing poker.

Some people experience mania as a state of anger and paranoia and may lose their jobs or create expensive legal problems for themselves because they create so much chaos and conflict. Others spend large amounts, not on luxuries but on irrational purchases that make sense only when manic — for example, maxing out a credit card to buy everyone you know a snake bite kit.

Drugs and alcohol can also empty bank accounts and cause substantial debts because substance abuse and bipolar disorder frequently occur together. Similarly, access to credit is actually very much like enabling a serious drug abuser because of the tendency for someone in a manic state to spend money with absolutely no ability to consider the consequences or significance of the debt.

Poor judgment can also be ruinous. Actress Patty Duke and writer Patricia Cornwall are two successful celebrities with bipolar disorder who have both lost large sums of money because of “business managers” no rational person would have ever engaged or trusted. For others, it can be a combination of factors. A friend of mine is constantly broke because of her bipolar husband. This man does not take his medication and cannot hold down a job. He spends his days drinking. Although it is only cheap beer, it is a constant, daily cash drain without him ever generating a cent of income. He is dripping his family into bankruptcy, one $2 Bud at a time. (Some people are disabled by bipolar disorder and genuinely cannot return to the workforce. Social Security disability payments are available in these circumstances.)

Living With Bipolar Disorder

Do I wish I still had six figures in my checking account? Sure! Do I miss the security of owning my own home free and clear? What do you think? Would I like to still have the luxury of passive income flowing in each month from my rental properties? Of course I would! However, there is one overriding positive that came out of my manic money meltdown. It was my crazy spending that led to a psychiatrist to finally understand what was really wrong with me.

In many ways the day I was told I probably had bipolar disorder was the best day of my life. The diagnosis shocked me but since then I have flourished with medication and therapy and have not had a serious episode of either mania or depression for eight years.

I also have a wonderful fiancé and we plan to marry this summer. We have been slowly combining our finances and recently bought a home together. How can my fiancé trust me with money? Why would anyone with a history of fiscal prudence and responsibility mesh their hard earned and carefully managed money with me – the ultimate financial train wreck?

One of the paradoxes of bipolar disorder is that it is episodic. In between bouts of either mania or depression, the person is “themselves.” It is possible during these periods of wellness and rationality to put in place safeguards to protect both the person with bipolar disorder and their family in the event of a serious mood swing.

In my home we have enjoyed a long period of stability and hope it continues. But we both know relapse is always a possibility. There are four specific tools we use together that give my fiancé and I peace of mind about our finances and everything else:

1. Daily Mood Charting

Every day I rate my mood, as well as making a few quick notes about sleep, diet and exercise. This way we can both see if I am starting to enter a period of being either unusually “up” or “down”, and also if I am missing sleep or slipping into the sort of poor lifestyle choices that tend to trigger an episode.

2. A Wellness Plan

This is a blueprint that describes my own personal signs of wellness, as well as my individual signature bipolar symptoms. It also describes the daily activities that support wellness, the typical red flags that show I am becoming a little manic or depressed, and the particular interventions that get me back on an even keel. I have also found that nutrition is extremely important and I have even written a bipolar diet book to share what I have learned with others.

3. A Treatment Contract

This is my written commitment to turn over all of my financial and business affairs to my fiancé if I ever experience a serious mood swing. It also includes a Power of Attorney. We have shared it with my doctor and psychiatrist and I have agreed to accept all and any of their treatment recommendations.

4. Transparency

We use Mint.com, a free web service that automatically tracks all bank accounts and even credit cards and investment accounts. The result is no secrets and no surprises. It means we can constantly fine-tune our budget and see exactly what we are both spending and saving.

Bipolar disorder is a serious illness. It cannot be cured but it can be managed. In fact, it is one of the most treatable of all mental illnesses. Most of the damage caused by bipolar disorder could be avoided with speedier diagnosis and adherence to treatment. Money problems are a common manifestation of bipolar disorder. Next time someone’s financial behavior strikes you as crazy or irrational, stop and look closely. Temporary insanity – in the form of bipolar mania – really may be the explanation.

Image: iStockphoto

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  • Howard

    Thank you for sharing your story. Bipolar Disorder can be devistating to the individual and also to all fo their family and friends. No one wants to see someone they care about spriral out of control. I’m a psychotherapist and hearing your story motivites me to learn more about this disorder so I can help people overcome it.

    • Sarah from Bipolar-Lives.com

      Thank you for your feedback. If my psychologist had known more about symptoms such as reckless spending or hypersexuality I would have been diagnosed much sooner and saved myself and others from some painful consequences. It is so encouraging to know there are therapists who are interested in understanding how bipolar is expressed as behavior and I’m sure you will be able to help a lot.

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  • Dryheaves Daily

    easily treatable? Excuse me. How about Bipolar 1 with co-morbidity? Easily treatable. Have you heard of rapid cycling, sometimes many times a day? Why is there such a high suicide rate with these disorders? How about the medications which can wreak havoc. There is no cure, just management. Families are suffering because of this severe disease. Have you read scientific articles

    • Sarah Freeman

      I have Bipolar I with a co-morbid condition. My psychiatrist told me it was easily treatable with many drug options .The first few meds I tried had lots of side effects and did little to help. Then I started lithium, which just last week was yet again demonstrated highly effective in preventing suicide and has also been shown to offer substantial neuroprotective benefits. Many people attempt to treat bipolar disorder with off label drugs instead of conventional and proven mood stabilizers such as lithium. While a small proportion of people are treatment resistant, most will benefit from the established medications. For me it was about persisting when the first couple of drugs were not a good fit for me, and eventually agreeing to lithium. There is some more information on tackling treatment resistant bipolar disorder on the Bipolar-Lives.com website.

      • Dryheaves Daily

        2 friends were on lithium for many many years and both had to have kidney transplants. And if you are taking lithium I suggest you talk to your doc about lamictal. They like combining the both. Seems like thats the drug of choice with lithium. I would also suggest you google lithium and renal function or lithium and renal disease. I suggest you have your lithium levels monitored. Lets not even talk about the effects on ones thyroid. I am not trying to bum you out at all. Just trying to help someone. Have you gained an immense amount of weight , yet? You will. I was on lithium for 3 years. Will never ever take it again.

  • Sarah from Bipolar-lives.com

    Thanks for your comment. It is great hear that the article helped. Just remember it is important to communicate about finances with your husband on an ongoing basis so that future spending blowouts can be avoided. Work with him and protect your marriage as well as your finances.

  • Ben Harry

    Excuses, excuses and excuses. It does not matter what is wrong upstairs or downstairs, the only things that matters is that you act smart and get things done right or right enough most times. Coming together here hugging, sayin “I have that too” and consoling each may help but by themselves do not take you to the next level of where you need to be. If I pay a carpenter to build me a drawer, I do not want to hear he squandered my down payment because of a mental condition. And I do not want to see him not working because he is having an manic depression episode or is in jail because of one. Neither do you.

    The fact of the matter is, fix your condition or get it not a managable state. And please, for the love of [insert whoever you want here] do not let your problems wreck havoc on others.

    This is the real world. The sooner you learn to live it it, the better you will feel.

    • CLW

      Ben Harry, you have no clue about bipolar disorder. It is not an “excuse” or a “weakness”, but a biologically-based brain disorder…not any different than diabetes. Get a clue, and chuck your ignorance.

      • Dryheaves Daily

        The difference in diseases is that if you have co-moorbidity with lets say severe anxiety and rapid cycling you are basically screwed mentally. With diabetes you have your faculties and sanity.

    • Dryheaves Daily

      Ben…. Your message is an affront to those who have the disease. I bet 100 percent of those who have BP have to deal with the stigma associated with it. You will never understand the disease. I dont wish it on my enemies.

    • Mike

      Ben,
      Did you even read this article? You said: “Excuses, excuses … fix your condition or get it not a managable state. And please, for the love of [insert whoever you want here] do not let your problems wreck havoc on others.”

      But in the article, that’s exactly what she said she did.
      “The diagnosis shocked me but since then I have flourished with medication and therapy and have not had a serious episode of either mania or depression for eight years.”

  • Andrew

    Ben, I’m glad that you haven’t been through this, but I’m disappointed about your arrogance and self righteousness. This article is an honest and forthcoming account of how bipolar ruined a person’s life. The problem is that a bipolar person doesn’t realize they’re ruining their life/finances until they get diagnosed. They are in a mania. They think they’re making good decisions, but they are not – because they’re incapable. It’s devastating.

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