Personality vs Illness - The Conversation Continues

John McManamy Health Guide
  • In my most recent sharepost, I noted that psychiatry distinguishes between personality and illness. Whereas the former equates to the default “me,” the latter is regarded as akin to an alien force that seems to take over our psyches. In bipolar, this translates into when good moods (and accompanying thoughts and behaviors) turn bad. On the “up” side, healthy exuberance or hyperthymia is not regarded with the same concern as out-of-character hypomania. On the “down” side, it may be possible to separate out introspective mild depressions from the type that rob us of the capacity to enjoy life.

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    The psychiatric rough guide is functionality. We tend to seek help when our runaway moods are making a train wreck of our lives. In theory, then, we should all regard our illness as a curse, but life is never that simple. In a comment to an earlier post, Gift or Curse?, Shedoescrack wrote:

    I have lived with bipolar so long that I don't know that I could separate the illness from the “me”. I don't know that one exists without the other. I think that we are are intertwined that we belong together for what ever reason. That God made me this way and he didn't want me to separate the two. I would be afraid that if I took [a magic] pill I would end erasing the “me”. I know it sounds crazy because there were times that I begged for this illness to go away ...

    Lizbec has this perspective:

    So, yes, I am cursed, at times when I am hospitalized for the manic highs and psychotics attacks from a complete lack of 2 or 3 days without sleep, but I am blessed with a creative element of writing essays and poetry, performing as an actress on stage on many occasions, and having artistic talent in drawing/painting that I wouldn't give up for all the money in the world.

    On the other hand, in response to my Personality or Illness sharepost, Swiftlearner offers this equally valid perspective:

    We have a condition that is not acceptable to the society and ourself. The fact that we are aware of the dissatisfaction means we are not the condition. This "awareness" or "thoughtfulness" is proof that we are not our condition. The opportunity and hope of recovery all hinge on this fact and neuroplasticity.

    But Crazylady throws this curve ball:

    [Bipolar] has been with me since my teens (I'm 50 now). I don't know anything else.  A family member commented that she wished I was "normal." I don't know what normal is. If I could be normal, I wouldn't even know how or really want to be. I agree that when I am happy, my family is constantly bringing it to my attention and asking if I am manic!

    Is there any way of reconciling these varying perspectives? Probably not to everyone’s satisfaction. Here is my personal take:

    I do not look upon my personality as fixed and static, nor do I necessarily wish to conform to other people’s version of “normal.” I certainly have no desire to re-experience the depressions and manias that have wrecked my life, but I also strongly believe it is possible to lead an extremely rich and even enviable life across a wide range of mood states.

  • My friend Tom Wootton, author of "The Bipolar Advantage" and "The Depression Advantage", offers the example of a Ferrari (that can handle tight curves at high speeds) and a Volkswagen van (that would flip over if you tried to drive it like a Ferrari). Yet both are equally stable sitting in the garage.

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    “But I don’t want to sit in a garage,” Tom contends. Hold that thought ...

    A lot of what used to hold me back (and to a certain extent still does) is that I came across to others as far too weird. My depressive philosophizing and exuberant ramblings were simply too way out there for me to ever get invited back into most people’s homes.

    My psychiatrist explained it to me this way: My brain - and this includes a lot of us - is not linear. While most of the rest of the world is slowly working its way down the logical chain from one to two, we are already at 28. But try articulating Proposition 28 when the conversation in the room is in a holding pattern at Proposition 4.

    Since my behavior clearly resulted in a noticeable lack of ability to function in social situations, I do not question that I was laboring under a mental illness. To make things worse, being a social leper both isolated me and gave me cause to feel hurt, which made me a sitting duck for severe depression. And because the world was a hostile place to me, I acquired some fairly heavy duty social anxiety along the way.

    Yet my inner world was amazingly rich. What seemed inappropriate and crazy on the surface to others contained its own beauty and logic to me. Indeed, over time I learned to express these thoughts on paper. In essence, I was transcribing my non-linear world to linear, and I even managed to make a career of it.

    In a similar manner, over time I learned to adjust my social behavior. I may have been bursting to express Proposition 28, but instead I dialed myself back to single digits. Dropping a Proposition 6 zinger on a Proposition 4 crowd can come across as smart, funny, and even thoughtful. It can also come across as overbearing and over-the-top, but at least people are not edging toward the exits as one speaks.

    How do I feel when a Proposition 6 zinger goes down well? Pretty damn good, thank you very much. How does it feel walking into a room where people are actually glad to see me? A bit anxious still, but safe and not frighteningly anxious - thanks for asking.

    To return to Tom’s example, I am able to take my Ferrari out of the garage. It’s the same mind I’m working with, the same personality, but now I’m functioning, arguably even highly functioning. I still have a serious mental illness to contend with - which often drives me to despair - but in one important area of my life I have successfully wrested a vital part of my personality - the true me - from the death grip of my illness.

    Personality vs Illness - let’s keep the conversation going ...

Published On: December 18, 2009