I’ve lived with bipolar disorder for more than half of my life. I often wonder how early the first signs of the illness appeared. Looking back, it brings tears to my eyes to admit that I believe it was probably quite early. Slowly but surely, the illness made more and more of an appearance in my life. Back then, before being “formally” introduced to it by receiving my diagnosis, I obviously didn’t know its name, but I certainly came to recognize its face. In 2005, when I finally did receive my diagnosis, my first reaction was relief. I finally had a name for the face. However, receiving the diagnosis and the never ending treatments to follow didn’t lessen its presence in my life like I had originally hoped. As much as I hate to admit it, after my diagnosis, I have often felt consumed by my illness. At times, it can feel as if it is in some way behind everything or in a way is everything, both good and bad.
So after some thinking, there are some separations I want to point out to others, and also to myself, to remind us all what the diagnosis of bipolar is not.
1. An excuse for my behavior.
I’ve been high, and OMG, I’ve been low. My manic episodes included little sleep, drinking like a fish, spending money like I had it to burn, sleeping around, dropping out of school in my last semester. My depressive episodes were the extreme opposite. In bed for days, unable to even take care of myself, often landing in the hospital in pieces. However, receiving my diagnosis did not provide an “excuse” for all of that behavior. I am still responsible for what I do or have done. I now simply have an explanation as to maybe what is behind that behavior. It has been suggested to me before that I could or should use my diagnosis as an excuse, and I believe that is wrong and simply feeds into the stigma of the illness.
2. A license to speak down to me.
I have run into this in a few places. I have sadly experienced this on mental health wards in hospitals by actual nursing staff. It’s difficult enough to be dealt with this way period, but when it’s by someone who is in charge of your care when you are in a particular vulnerable state, it is truly disappointing. Fortunately, I believe this is usually a case of a few bad apples in a bunch.
Another location I have personally found this is at my local pharmacy. They are obviously aware of my condition due to my many medications and information, yet some of the staff talk to me as if they’re eating their face. I find this especially when I’m advocating for myself or trying to correct an error on their part.
Bottom line, I’m a person deserving of respect. My diagnosis should in no way affect the way you speak to me.
3. Permission to judge me.
Although I haven’t chosen to share my diagnosis with everyone in my life, the truth is, I live in a small town, and I’ve been ill for a long time. Word gets around, and sometimes it gets back to you. Unfortunately, when word gets around, it’s often like a game of telephone and the story gets skewed. And yes, maybe I judge myself. I’m 37 and single. I’m on disability and have had to move back in with my parents in their basement. And I live with my two cats. I have been called “The Crazy Cat Lady,” and I have even half-jokingly referred to myself as that as well. But that’s a judgment, and it hurts. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder is not an umbrella to simply judge an acquaintance as “crazy.” Be careful, that word can hurt.
4. A reason to write me off.
I was diagnosed at a time when my friends were taking big steps in their lives and moving on. In a sense, I kind of got left behind. I feel as if I’m sometimes forgotten. In fact, I sometimes forget myself.
Right when I was diagnosed, many of my friends were buying homes, getting engaged. When I was hospitalized the first couple of times, they were getting married and having kids. Careers were moving forward, more babies were being born and I was relapsing. Despite where my road took me, I still have hopes, wishes and dreams. Your past doesn’t have to predict your future, right? I’m not done, I haven’t quit. I’m not going to give up.
5. All of who I am.
Although I admitted before that at times I have felt that my diagnosis has consumed me, I really am so much more than just that. We have heard it before, but I try to remember the saying — I have bipolar, I am not bipolar.
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