Polarizing Identity

A question central to my recent discussions with my therapist is: “Is my identity too centered on my mental illness?” 

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013, I was thankful. Not upset, not rejecting. But thankful. For months and months prior to my diagnosis, I knew something in my head and my behavior wasn’t typical. Something felt wrong. I now know nothing was wrong – something within my brain chemistry is just different than most people. With that new identity came stigmatized fear of mental illness. Bipolar became this overwhelming entity in my life. Going into college, I feared what it would mean for my relationships with those around me. The thought “Will they be scared of me?” rang loudly and clearly in my anxious mind. That thought is still there, but with the help of therapy and accepting friends, I’ve come to a place where it doesn’t have to overwhelm me when I state, “I live with bipolar disorder.” 

In so many spaces dedicated to supporting those with bipolar, whether blogs, books, support groups, or doctors’ offices, there is a pattern of rejecting bipolar disorder as a part of who we are. We are told “Don’t let it control you!” A published activist, Julie Fast, has written, “Always ask yourself, is this the real me or the bipolar me? Then make sure the ‘real you’ is in control when you see your friends.” With people like doctors, activists, and peers giving us these messages, we assume they’re in the right and that we shouldn’t embrace bipolar disorder. We accept this form of condemning support because we aren’t offered validation. We aren’t allowed to be bipolar. 

With this type of support offered to us, we’re left internalizing shame from stigma that people like us are perpetuating. It’s exhausting to me that we’re told not to embrace a part of our identity. With my question surrounding my identity and bipolar disorder, my current therapist often reminds me to not let bipolar disorder rule how I live day to day. This statement generalizes the experience with bipolar by implying that I can separate it from my everyday life. When I’m rapid cycling through two or three major mood shifts in a single day, how am I supposed to control my experience and think of it outside of bipolar disorder? Of course, I’m not rapid cycling every day, but I can notice overarching patterns in my behavior by associating longer periods of time with hypomania or depression. By embracing the varying aspects of my disorder and when they arise, I can think of solutions to what’s going on in order to better my experience. Allowing myself to be bipolar let’s my mind work to find an easing of the struggles that come with the disorder. Acknowledging bipolar as a daily stressor is an invitation to a longer healing process. 

Past therapists and social workers have implied that they want me to think of my life separate from bipolar to live legibly as “not mentally ill.” As if there’s one way of being mentally ill. This sticks with me as a notion of shame surrounding mental illness. We’re taught not to live as the “crazy trope” that people associate with mental illness symptoms. But mental illness is more than just psychosis or anger. Mental illness can include a happy demeanor, an exercise routine, sitting in a coffee shop reflecting on your own experience as I am now. We need to destigmatize associating ourselves with mental illness so we can embrace our identity as wholly human. 

Not everyone will let bipolar be an invitation to healing though. These constant interjections telling us to separate ourselves from our disorders create a polarizing identity for people living with bipolar disorder. We’re told to recognize the “real us” and the “bipolar us” and differentiate between the two in order to be as “real” as possible. I strongly disagree with this separation. No matter how hard we try, we live with bipolar disorder at all times. I cannot remove the disorder from my brain. There is no cure, which I’ve come to accept, but there is better treatment we can require as people with bipolar disorder. We don’t deserve to be ashamed of our own identity. We deserve to love who we are, as anyone does. 

I reject the common notion to separate myself from the disorder. I won’t let the shame of stigma that dictates I don’t embrace my disorder rule my identity. Instead, I wholly identify with bipolar disorder. I see the negatives: the lack of motivation, the suicidal ideation, the impulsiveness, the obsessive thinking. But I also see the positives: the critically thinking thought process that helps me perform better in school, the high sociability that allows me to quickly make friends, the intimacy granted from bonding over a shared mental illness. I acknowledge and welcome every aspect of bipolar because I cannot rid myself of it. And, honestly, I don’t want to. 

I am only twenty years old, and bipolar disorder is central to who I am. Bipolar disorder is not an entity that controls my actions. Instead, it’s a label that allows doctors and friends to know my brain doesn’t function typically. And that’s okay. I can be bipolar at all times, but that doesn’t make it the only part of my identity. “Bipolar” is not the only adjective to qualify who I am. Critical, open, queer, student, friend, millennial, and bipolar are all identifiers for me, but none of them outweigh another. I am wholly bipolar while also wholly a millennial. These identifiers individually speak to one whole aspect of who I am, and combined they speak to a few aspects of my whole myself. Bipolar is not an overwhelming statement of our worth, functionality, or emotional states. It’s just a word. I encourage you to look past stigma and shame and tell yourself, “I live with bipolar, but that does not change me. It just adds a single identity to the mix.” 

Read the rest of Mark’s posts here

Translate »