Bipolar and my Identity

It’s time for a personal post (yay!).

I was diagnosed with Type I Bipolar Disorder about 12 months ago and it changed my entire world. It wasn’t that I was surprised or felt somehow different than before, but I felt relieved to finally have a framework to understand myself and my struggles. And struggles, well, there had been plenty.

For many years my symptoms went unnoticed or misunderstood. I had an eating disorder for most of my teen years so any and all mood disturbances were usually attributed to the anorexia. Later I was viewed as an exceptionally upbeat, focused person who went through bouts of depression. I would often find myself apologising for getting depressed for 2-3 months, but reassuring people ‘I’m okay again!’. I would then repeat this cycle endlessly. And yet we managed to not see the signs for a long time. It almost seems funny now. How did we possibly miss it?

My episodes of depression had gotten a great deal more severe over the last three years. And what particularly concerned me was that nothing was going on in my life to explain it. I was finally at a stage in my life where nothing was actually happening to explain away my sadness and despair. I was seeing a wonderful Psychologist who was helping me work through my traumatic past. And nothing changed. Except when I became suicidal. I immediately sort out a prescription for antidepressants. I thought that they would ‘take the edge off’ and help me focus on getting better. They only made me worse.

When the lexapro made me worse I was referred to a Psychiatrist. My GP made a comment that this might indicate a more complex  mood disorder. And then it hit me. You idiot. You have Bipolar. You have always had Bipolar. I was actually furious at myself as a Psychology student for not realising the patterns. My psychiatrist confirmed the diagnosis. We even laughed together as we ticked off boxes, once again wondering how it had missed people’s attention. And then we got to work on our plan of action.

And that brings us to now. I have spent many months exploring where my illness stops and I begin. I find myself reluctant to blame things on my Bipolar. I remember raging at my loved ones, being abusive (before I was medicated) and I struggle to remove myself and my guilt from it. I have also struggled with where to attribute my success to. I am forced to wonder if my success can be explained by my manic states of creativity and focus. I used to think I was successful in spite of my mental illness but now I question if it also plays a facilitative role.

Lately I have found it useful to write in my journal about what clearly differentiates me from my Bipolar diagnosis. It has helped me claim back a sense of identity that was damaged by my diagnosis. It is so easy to explain any character flaws away with the diagnosis. But it also hurts to think of all of my years of teenage chaos as simply being a manifestation of Bipolar as opposed to my own free will. So I find ways to remind myself of where my illness demarcates from my identity. I write down all the features of my personality that make me unique from my illness. Whether it be my positive outlook, my passion for life or my patience with loved ones. I write down anything I can think of that makes me me.

Being able to read these facts gets me through some of my more challenging days and lets me know that I will get through dark times. It makes me look forward to the future. Reading these simple reminders takes me to a place where I can remember what my life is like when I am in control of my illness and it isn’t in control of me. So if you ever see me reading a notebook on a train, with a smile of recognition on my face, you’ll know that I was just reminded that I like to laugh more than I like to cry.

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