My Bipolar Quest for Identity

John McManamy Health Guide
  • It’s almost exactly eight years since I first started writing about bipolar here on HealthCentral. What I wrote about back in 2005 very much accords with how I perceive the illness today and how I manage my daily challenges, but one thing has fundamentally changed: 

     

    Eight years ago, I was an outsider trying to fit into the world of “normal.” Somewhere along the line, I dropped the pretense.

     

    This is an issue of identity we must all face sooner or later. We are looking for that elusive answer to the eternal question: Who am I? We’re never going to find out, of course. Still society insists we make choices, agonizing ones. At what cost do we dare to be ourselves?

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    By the time I was diagnosed with my illness in 1999, I was so cut off from humanity that these questions seemed entirely abstract. Getting out of my denial was my first step toward coming to terms with who I was. In essence, I was my illness, both for better and worse.

     

    I’m not asking you to agree with this. Just appreciate the fact that this first attempt in trying on a new identity undoubtedly saved my life. If I couldn’t be accepted as normal, perhaps there was a sort of “honorary normal” I could shoot for. Honorary normal was a lot better than being isolated and alone.

     

    I was, ironically, assisted by my social anxiety. It was a very strange existence. Here I was, openly bipolar, but coming across as quiet and reserved. But it worked. I certainly didn’t come across as crazy. I could be honorary normal.

     

    I might have gone very far in life as honorary normal, but a strange thing happened - I started picking up confidence. It came in small increments, but a breakthrough occurred late 2005, soon after joining HealthCentral.

     

    I was in New York with John Gartner and a party of friends. John is the author of The Hypomanic Edge, published earlier that year. His book validated a lot of my intuitive views about bipolar having a positive side. It also resonated with a side of me that was real but one that I had been keeping in a tightly sealed jar.

     

    I wrote an enthusiastic review, we established a correspondence, and we met up at that summer at the International Conference on Bipolar Disorder, in Pittsburgh. Our minds were on such a similar wave-length that the two of us blew off the evening get-together and found a restaurant where we could just sit and talk.

     

    So here we were, a few months later. John was in Lower Manhattan at a reading and book signing. I had come up from central New Jersey, where I was living at the time. After the event, he and I, with a bunch of his friends, headed off on foot, on a New York sidewalk, to a social gathering with another group of friends and well-wishers.

     

    The mood was buoyant. What if, I thought, I were to - you know - say something light-hearted? You know, to match the crowd’s mood? When in Rome, you know. I took a few deep breaths and gave it a shot.

     

    I do not recall what I said, but a comet did not fall on my head, lightening did not strike me dead. The sidewalk did not crack and swallow me whole, and no one turned around to gasp in shock-horror.

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    This was the beginning. A year or so later, Tom Wootton, author of The Bipolar Advantage, coached me in public speaking. I make no claims to any ability to blab for 30 minutes or more to people sitting in chairs, but what he did for me was nothing short of a miracle - I could actually venture out from behind the lectern without notes and look a hundred people in the eye. Having accomplished that, small social settings were a piece of cake.

     

    Acquiring a bit of confidence, though, does come at a price. Not everyone appreciates my eccentric and exuberant side, particularly during the early going when I was still learning on the job. People were seeing some of the crazy in me, and crazy - even good crazy - stirs up strange reactions in people. That’s where we make choices. Who was I trying to please? What kind of people did I want in my life?

     

    Who knows? I might have gone a long way as honorary normal, but in the end I opted for what felt right for me. I am the same person inside that I was back in 2005. The difference is that I feel okay with showing people a bit of that inside. As for the outside, yes I have a bipolar diagnosis, I don’t hide it, but I don’t parade it around either. I am who I am.

     

    “You’re crazy!” a very lovely woman exclaimed to me at a bonfire gathering nearly two years ago. We had only just met and already she thought I was nuts.

     

    Oh, crap, I thought. I blew it. But it turned out I was wrong. She was giving me a compliment. With the right person, crazy can not only be good, but very comforting, the beginning of a virtuous cycle. The woman who called me crazy is now the love of my life. 

     

    Our stories may be different, but our issues are the same. Sooner or later, we all must come to terms with who we are, then learn to wear it in public. Trust me, no one gets it right the first time. We are, to a person, a work-in-progress.  

Published On: October 10, 2013