Bipolar and Identity: In Search of Self

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last week, as a Question of the Week, I asked: If you had access to an imaginary pill that could cure you of your bipolar right now, forever, would you take it?


    The answer was unambiguous. Hell yes, said the five people who responded.


    I can certainly identify with this response. There is no way to describe the hells I’ve endured with this illness. Even today, in a state of relative recovery, I am constantly paying the price of an unreliable brain, one that shuts down or acts up or just plain goes weird for no reason. 


    And God forbid, should another killer depression come along.


    But if this were a simple yes or no question, I would have to answer no. Certainly not a hell no. But a no just the same. It all has to do with who I am. Or who I think I am.

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    Conventional psychiatry regards bipolar as a “state” where we exhibit out-of-character behavior, very noticeable to those who know us. In this sense, we may have an illness, but we are NOT our illness. We may have bipolar, but we are NOT our bipolar.


    This may constitute a very good recovery mindset, but life is not that simple. As much as psychiatry would like to draw a line between “state” and “trait,” each inevitably bleeds across the other. Bipolar may not exactly be who we are, but it forms a vital part of who we are.


    Like it or not, our bipolar is embedded into our personality. It informs our sense of self, who we are.


    So, if a magic pill could remove my bipolar, what else would it remove? Would my bipolar “cure” amount to a personality amputation?


    People have died in battle, been burned at the stake, been shipped off to the death camps, refusing - to their last heroic breath - to yield their sense of identity. Am I willing to let go of mine so readily, even in the name of a cure? 


    Do I really want to wake up - a different person?


    There is another aspect to the issue. As a general rule, nothing is either all good or all bad. We can all list many exceptions, but bipolar - I submit - is not one of them. There is good mixed with the bad. 


    I will not romanticize the good. All I will say is that if we are so quick to blame bipolar for everything wrong about us, can we not at least give the illness credit for a few things that might be right with us? Our creativity, for one? Our deep thinking, for another?


    If nothing else, can we not give our illness grudging acknowledgement for the highly complex, multi-dimensional beings we turned out to be?


    And if we were to trade in all that complexity, what would simple look like? What would life in a uni-dimensional world look like? I have no doubt that simple and uni-dimensional would be a lot more pain-free. And, maybe even, I would be a lot happier. But at what cost? What cost?


    Lots of questions. No simple answers.

Published On: February 08, 2014