So, you finally have an explanation for your emotional upheavals and behavior, and it’s called bipolar disorder. Is it a relief or has it simply opened a can of worms? Now what? Do you become the illness? Do you deny it? Or do you determine that bipolar is something you may have but which will not define you as a person? At face value this third option may seem the thing to do, but evidence from those who live with bipolar suggests that it does, in no small measure, define the person you are. Should you then embrace bipolar? Well, that’s perhaps too strong a term and maybe not so different from becoming the illness. Yes, bipolar diagnosis is a confusing time.
For a start, you have been classified as someone with a mental illness. Leaving aside the actual diagnosis this itself can result in anxiety, fears and not uncommonly a degree of resistance in being thought of in these terms. Even today, the lack of understanding about mental health means fantasies can run away people. Some I’ve heard include being locked up forever, losing it completely, having possessions taken away, having children taken away, and so on.
Initial diagnosis can leave people a bit stunned. Some will never have heard the term bipolar disorder and it takes a while just repeating the term before it takes hold. Then the implications begin to take shape. More facts are sought and this can be a period of selective abstraction in which the person seems only to focus on the most negative features of the disorder. It’s a time when health professionals need to be vigilant and take time to create a more balanced picture.
The stigma of mental illness is undermining and de-motivating. It is a time when some people undergo a form of bereavement in which they grieve the loss of the person they were and see the future as bleak and unrewarding. For this reason it is so important to provide the means for practical and emotional support. Medication is cold comfort. One of the most effective ingredients, I believe, is the support of others who live with bipolar. They can provide shelter from the storm of negative emotions that will follow and provide the necessary wisdom and guidance for living with bipolar.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.