I have found one of the most difficult aspects of having a mental illness and specifically bipolar disorder, is realizing we are much more than a diagnosis. In fact, buying into the whole idea of “I am bipolar” instead of believing “I have bipolar,” in my opinion says a lot about how we view ourselves. For me it was very empowering to start telling people I have bipolar disorder. At first it was difficult but the more comfortable and confident I became the easier it was to talk about living with an illness. I was much more at ease when I found myself not identifying with the illness and having the proper language behind it made it somewhat better. I could teach people the proper way to talk about a person who has bipolar disorder.
I know some people feel very strongly about saying they are bipolar, because in some cases they have found a sense of peace by knowing what was affecting their moods and behaviors. Sometimes it is as if they needed an extra stamp of approval for excusing behaviors that occurred during an episode that they may have other wise never done. For example, “I’m bipolar, what do you expect?” It starts to get complicated in part because many famous, creative folks have lived with the benefits of bipolar disorder and this is well documented. They are often referred to as “being bipolar.”
The good news is we are beginning to recognize the fact that naming someone his or her disease kindles the stigma fire. It is much more appropriate to recognize people who have mental illnesses than it is to call them their disorder name. The very idea of saying a person lives with an illness at the very least begins to open minds and hearts. If I am called by my disease name it discounts the pain and suffering I have had to endure on my treatment journey. By saying, “Amy is bipolar,” it tends to place blame on me for having an illness. I can tell you I did not sign up for this disorder willingly and I know it’s not my fault for having it, but the truth is I live with bipolar disorder and I accept it.
Some people may suggest it’s only semantics. What I believe is that we need to embrace having an illness because it is part of the recovery journey and we cannot live to our fullest potential without accepting we live with a disease. But it is also very harmful to begin seeing ourselves through the very limiting lens of bipolar disorder. After all we are more than an ICD-10 diagnosis–aren’t we?