Author: George Hofmann
How do you relate to bipolar disorder, and how do you describe yourself?
Language can have a powerful influence over self-definition, revelation, and healing. The way we describe ourselves and our condition speaks volumes about our outlook and our outcomes. I was diagnosed decades ago with bipolar disorder, I still adhere to treatment, and I still suffer occasional disruptive mood changes. Yet I strongly maintain that I am not bipolar.
For years I agreed with doctors and other healing professionals with the phrase, “I am mentally ill.” After all, I had all the symptoms: I was psychotic, I was terribly socially inhibited, I destroyed relationships and finances during manic episodes, and eventually, after much trial and error, I responded to treatment. Diagnosis correct, hence, “I am bipolar.”
But that phrase always bothered me.
Place an object after a noun and the verb to be and the result is identity. I’m comfortable with the fact that I am a man, I am 57 years old, and I am short. But maintaining that I am a disease always struck me as damaging.
How could I recover from a condition, how could I lose it, if I was it?
It struck me that bipolar is not who I am, but instead something I have. You see, no one says I am hypertension or I am cancer. Why not? Because that’s not who they are. The diseases are something they have. What damage was I doing to myself by identifying with the idea that I am bipolar?
So I changed the language I used to describe myself. I maintained not that “I am mentally ill,” but instead that “I have a mental illness.” It caused a sea change in my treatment and my recovery.
Suddenly I was not a damaged person. I simply had a medical condition like any other, and it could be treated and I could manage it. Maybe I could even remove its influence from my life.
No longer would I allow anyone, not doctors, not family, not anyone, to say that I was bipolar. I insisted on, “you have bipolar disorder.” I’m not splitting hairs here. The difference is huge, and I encourage you to adopt this language in describing yourself and your own condition. I can guarantee that you will change your relationship to the challenges that mental illness brings to your life.
If you are something, well, that’s who you are. But if you have something you can get over it, or minimize it, or manage it. You can stand apart from it. You alone are complete. The things you have are influential, yes, but malleable. I believe that if we insist on the verbiage that we have a mental illness, instead of that we are mentally ill, we can focus more on positive treatment and even defeat the stigma surrounding our challenges.
It concerns me that today I see young people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or other affective disorders identifying with disease and fully incorporating it into their self-image.
Yes, it is necessary to accept the disorder and yes, it is true that beneficial things can come of one’s experience with mental illness. But all mental illness remains challenging to others and can lead to maladaptive behavior. Society demands some basic behaviors from each of us, and we must be able to be independent and self-supporting. If identifying with a disease prevents that, the identity should be questioned.
Again, I think it’s beneficial to say you have a mental illness. All the learning and love can still follow. You just won’t limit yourself by succumbing to the self-definition that you are ill, or dangerously different, or damaged in any way.
The language we use can shine a tremendous light on whom we think we are. And who we think we are, and how that person is independent of the things doctors tell us we have, is a full, productive, and healing, compassionate person.
So I can comfortably say, “I have bipolar disorder.”
Only by standing apart from this affective disorder was I able to imagine living without its pervasive impact on my actions. I had to establish an identity that did not include bipolar disorder or its symptoms. Sure I still have it, But it’s not who I am.
If your self-definition is caught up in a disease, the self-definition is limited and incorrect. Don’t identify with a disease. Only then can you change. Only then can it go away.
Don’t say, “I am bipolar.” Instead say, “I have bipolar disorder.”
After a series of hospitalizations and a lot of bad behavior, George Hofmann managed to overcome the worst of bipolar disorder by adding practices in focused attention to the usual therapies of medicine and talk. He works to show others with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder how to do the same. He maintains the site “Practicing Mental Illness,” which promotes meditation, movement and meaningful work as keys to growth and healing. George has conducted workshops on meditation for individuals, families, support groups, healthcare professionals and corporations. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.