“I have bipolar disorder. Can I be a doctor?”
It’s one of those questions to which there is no real answer. Being a doctor takes a long time, it requires reliability, diligence, and a willingness to learn things you may not want to learn and do things you may not want to do. It requires endurance and passion. You need to be tolerant of many things: arrogant supervisors, irritable colleagues, sick people who may not be charming and who may, in their distress, be down-right nasty. You have to tolerate a militaristic order and be willing to work with a system that may be very difficult, wrong, and demand your obedience in ways that may be uncomfortable. Oh, I am so happy to no longer be a medical student or a resident in training.
So can you do it with bipolar disorder? Can you do it with diabetes? Can you do it with attention deficit problems? Can you do it if you’re disorganized or ugly?
The question assumes there is one bipolar disorder, that for everyone it has the same course and the same prognosis. Some people have an episode a few times in a life, and between episodes, their mood is stable, their emotions gentle. Others cycle from one mood to another, feeling the whole bipolar thing most minutes of most days. Some patients with bipolar disorder are in and out of the hospital, behave in impulsive and criminal ways when ill, and can’t hold any job. Some do fine with medications and therapy, while others have refractory conditions that defy the most creative of cocktails and the best of therapists, even with their total compliance.
And some people become doctors and then get bipolar disorder.
So, the answer to the question is, maybe.
Dinah Miller is a psychiatrist who blogs at Shrink Rap and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.