When You Struggle to See Your Identity Apart From Your Mental Illness


I have been dealing with mental illness most of my life. I have memories of anxiety and possibly depression starting at a young age, at about seven. At age 20, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since then, I track my moods. I cycle between hypomania and depression. It feels so much like part of who I am. So then, I wonder, where do I stop and where does the bipolar disorder start?

I have other mental issues as well: anxiety disorders and dissociation. These problems feel so much like my everyday experience, and medications haven’t helped much. I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), so I am basically anxious all the time. I just notice the extremes now — days when my anxiety is really bad, and I have panic attacks or can’t do things, and days when I have barely any anxiety and am able to enjoy my life. I have dissociative problems when under a lot of stress. When my anxiety gets really bad, sometimes I dissociate. So those problems are linked.

My point is, does my identity include my mental illnesses? Or is my true self separate?

Am I an “emotional” person who cycles between depression and hypomania, or am I a regular person dealing with the roller coaster of bipolar disorder?

Am I an anxious person? Or am I a person dealing with an anxiety disorder?

If my mood swings stabilized, would I then be my true self? Or does my true self include mood swings?

If I beat the anxiety somehow, would I then be my true self? Or does this illness make up part of me?

Some mental illnesses come for a while and then leave. Some mental illnesses can be conquered through therapy or personal growth, or just fade over time. But I’ve been told by psychiatrists that I will have bipolar disorder my whole life and need to be on medication for it for my whole life. I am told the same thing about my generalized anxiety disorder. So, do these disorders make up part of me, or is my true self separate?

Part of the problem is I can’t even imagine myself with no anxiety and a stable mood. That person seems so different from me. But would that be my true self, the person without the illnesses?

I am studying counseling and my professor was explaining generalized anxiety disorder. She said that for a person with generalized anxiety disorder, the first word to describe them is anxious. She said they are more anxious than anything else.

That upset me deeply. Yes, I am anxious all the time, but I think I am other things first.

When I have difficulty understanding myself, sometimes it helps me to write lists of things that are true about me.

I am a deep thinker.
I am passionate.
I care deeply about people.
I have a strong faith.
I am emotional.
I analyze everything.
I like writing.
I love music and poetry.
I love spending time in nature.
I love spending time with my husband and friends.
I am anxious all the time, and have generalized anxiety disorder.
I flip between depression and hypomania due to my bipolar disorder.
Sometimes I have dissociative problems.

As I list qualities of myself and read them over, I see my identity includes having mental illnesses, but I am much more than that. And I remind myself that I change. My identity changes over time. My experience of mental illnesses changes.

Maybe I will always have to deal with bipolar disorder and anxiety, but it won’t be the same as it is now. Maybe it is a big part of me now, and that is OK.

I refuse to accept that the main description of me is anxious. I am much more than that. I like writing about my experience of mental illness, but that is just part of who I am.

I remind myself of the deep complexity of me, and then I feel like I know my identity after all.

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Thinkstock photo via ARTQU.

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