Bipolar and You - The Search for Identity

John McManamy Health Guide
  • To be or not to be: ARE you bipolar? Or do you HAVE bipolar? That is the question. In response to an earlier post, Don’t Call Me Bipolar, Tabby wrote: 


    I have said, time and again... "I am NOT a Bipolar person.  I am a person who struggles with Bipolar." and I've found - over the years - that many with Bipolar bristle at that. Many WANT to be "a Bipolar" person because the Bipolar is who they are or describes their situation as a whole.


    Tabby related how she was hospitalized due to a car wreck. All her hospital records described her as “a bipolar.”  As she puts it: “I was reduced to an identification as only that of a mental illness label.”

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    About 11 or 12 years ago, on my website mcmanweb, I asked readers: “Are you bipolar or do you have bipolar?” At the time, I was firmly on the ARE side. As I wrote at the time:


    Unlike diabetes and other physical diseases, bipolar defines who we are, from the way we perceive colors and listen to music to how we taste our food. We don’t HAVE bipolar. We ARE bipolar, for both better and worse.


    That observation made it into my book, which was published in 2006. But by then my view was shifting. Maybe I can frame the discussion in terms of my own journey:


    After a lifetime of denial, I was diagnosed in early 1999. My diagnosis, frightening as it was, came as a relief. Not only did it explain my crazy life up to this point, but it give me an indication of what I was up against and what I could do about it. Moreover, my acceptance of the obvious brought a welcome sense of peace.


    At the time, my survival really depended on identifying as “a bipolar.” Not only did I have to get my condition under control, but I had to figure out how to fit into a world that was a total mystery to me.


    That meant turning my whole life around. Everything, no exceptions: Diet, exercise, sleep, social interactions, living arrangements, work. It also meant taking meds. I started every day by popping a mood stabilizer into my mouth, my constant reminder that I was not normal.


    You don’t turn your life around in one day. Acquiring insight takes time, as does developing a degree of proficiency in handling challenging situations. Over time, I made some headway, but the world I found myself integrating into was limited. My livelihood was based on writing about my illness. The people I hung out with were dealing with the same diagnosis, as was the woman I married.


    I had achieved a certain measure of comfort in my life, but was it real? In late 2006, that world came apart. My marriage broke up and I found myself in southern CA. I was living in a house with two others who shared both my diagnosis and passion for mental health issues, but they also had lives outside their condition.


    Moving to a new location is an invitation to reinvent oneself. Could I go out among people and not be bipolar, for a change? Or would I find myself a stranger in a strange land? Would I be living a lie trying to blend into the world of “normal”?


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    Crazy thing, the more I acted myself - somewhat crazy and very much eccentric - the more I blended in. Acting “normal” didn’t work. It sent out a strange dissonant vibe, as if I were hiding something. As long as I was comfortable with “a little bit crazy,” the people around me were too. As a result, I felt a new sense of acceptance.


    When you are comfortable with who you really are, when people around you are comfortable with who you really are, no one asks about bipolar. 


    At various stages in my journey, I have felt as if I have been introduced to myself for the very first time. There was Bipolar John, followed by John Who Has Bipolar. But several years ago, I settled into a sort of Post-Bipolar John. I am whoever I happen to be.


    Your comments welcome ...




    This is the third in our conversation on stigma. Previous pieces:

    When Anti-Stigma Backfires

    Don't Call Me Bipolar

Published On: August 02, 2013