The Bipolar Identity Crisis: Is Going With Your Label Ever Useful?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I have written extensively on the issue of identity, here at Health Central. No sense in stopping now …


    What’s in a name?


    At a certain point, we rebel against our label. This is not only natural, it is commendable. Since my diagnosis 16 years ago, I have gone from “Bipolar John” to “John with Bipolar,” to “Post-Bipolar John.”


    Post-Bipolar John is someone who acknowledges that, yes, the illness has a way of showing me who is boss, but who otherwise refuses to allow the condition to define me. I am who I am. Definitely not normal, and thank heaven for that.


    Accept me on my own terms - love me for what I bring to your life, make accommodations for my shortcomings - and I will do the same for you.

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    But there was also a time in my life where identifying as “Bipolar John” was essential to my survival. This was brought home loud and clear in a piece on The Huffington Post by Krystal Reddick. Krystal is a teacher who was diagnosed with bipolar seven years ago, following a hospitalization from a manic episode.


    For six of those years, writes Krystal, “I did not claim the label.” She figured that a one-time manic attack by no means constituted bipolar. Never mind the DSM, never mind psychiatry. Then, in 2013, came a second hospitalization. As she writes: “I could no longer act like I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis.”


    Krystal’s therapist cautioned her not to identify with her label, but she disagreed. As she writes: 


    Just as I am black and a woman and an American, I too also have bipolar disorder. It does have an impact on my life: my choices, my thoughts, my actions. To deny the label would be like denying a part of me. 


    She notes that when she reads the DSM entry for bipolar, she can assign a checkmark to nearly every symptom for mania and depression. This has brought her a sense of comfort. Finally, after all these years, her thoughts and actions made sense.


    Obviously, this state of acceptance has allowed Krystal to come to terms with herself and get on with her life. No doubt, most of you - me included - have experienced a similar state of coming home.


    So here is where it gets complicated …


    The other day, I found myself explaining my bipolar to a new friend in my life - let’s call her Sue. Sue, all in good faith, offered to read up on the illness.


    No! I found myself responding with far greater emphasis than I ever imagined myself capable of. Don’t read anything. It’s all bullsh*t. It will give you the wrong impression. I repeat, don’t read anything.


    Not even my own book, I added.


    Not even my own book? What was that all about? Here’s where I was coming from:


    My fear was that Sue reading about my illness would only discourage her from getting to know me. Instead, she would wind up seeing me as a label and diagnosis. This has happened to me before.


    Just imagine my new friend coming across those ubiquitous DSM symptom lists. Gadzooks, something like the following is the very last thing I would want her to see:


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    Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments).


    Likewise, what would my new friend make of all those shock-horror statistics that reveal our high rates of unemployment and failed relationships, not to mention a zillion-and-one physical health complications and a propensity to die young?


    Yes, it’s all true, but the truth can be highly misleading. This was a lesson I learned in law school many years ago.


    We were studying the law of defamation. The prof gave the example of Joe the Plumber fixing a sink at an address known as a house of prostitution. Someone reports Joe walking out of that address.


    True, right? But this kind of “truth” raises a rather major innuendo. 


    So here I was, several days ago, truth about to meet innuendo. Sooner or later, we all face some version of this scenario. In the end, we find ourselves saying - with immense passion - forget all that bipolar crap, judge me for who I am.


    Or, to fill in the blanks - judge me for the truly messed-up person I am. That way, at least, you will get to know me. And, oh yes, maybe you will also see my humanity shine through. You might like that.


    No easy answers …


    Knowing thyself is life-long exercise. Along the way, we all pick up and discard a number of working identities. Making the transition to the next one is likely to be as comfortable as it is disconcerting. In my case: John, meet John. Each time, it’s like meeting myself for the first time.


    In all likelihood, I’m bound to encounter a future version of “me.” Likewise, I never rule out the possibility of consulting a past me. You never know. After all, back in the day, those previous identities served me rather well.  


    More pieces on identity … 


    Finding the Human Beneath the Label

    The Search for Identity

    Don't Call Me Bipolar

Published On: December 20, 2014