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

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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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The Rise and Fall of the Fairy Queen: My Bipolar Journey, a Prose Poem

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People have inquired about my personal journey through the extremes my illness brings.
Let me elaborate.
Right now, in this moment, I own success. My feet are grounded upon the Earth I was born.
Yet, often I desire to be more than myself, to be better, grander — magical.
The only caveat is I must let the elixir of strength and wellness seep from my daily cup.
Only thus — seemingly so, so simple, yet profound.
This temptation to ascend to the high places, to cast away my mere humanity, eats away at my resolve, bit by bit.
Until, one day, I give in and set aside my daily pill.
At first, nothing happens. Why would it? Who but the sick need to take such bitter daily droughts?
More days pass — elixir forgotten, resolve long chipped away until it exits no more.
Soon, life’s toils are easier to bare, smiles easier to wear.
Feet no longer on meager ground, but standing in the clouds;
I succumb to the glorious promise the elixirless world offers.

And I transform into the Faerie queen,
Glittery Green and sparkling Gold.
I ascend to my lunar throne, gravity no longer pulling me down.
My magic enables feats of super fae proportions —
Novels appear, ideas and plans reproduce into grand schemes.
They go off into my land singing my praises,
“Look, see this shining soul? Isn’t she the picture of health? She didn’t need the soothsayer’s cure after all.”
In a short span, these bright birthed plans have assembled a court of sentient admirers, clambering for my presence,
offering hedonistic experiences and endless resources.
I look down upon the Earthly realm and revel in this weightlessness, this ease of creation.
All is perfection.

But, my own admirers, my well-formed schemes, start jealous whispers —
rumors of cracks and faults in my pearlescent walls.
I attempt to banish them, but they clasp on, one by one, until I cannot see above them or around them, and I must be hypervigilant of their barbs.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day; no rest or succor in sight.
No escape from the schemes and plans and seemly courteous thoughts —
Now abandoned of sentience and clamped upon inch of coppery skin.

Until —
I fall from this gallant throne,
fall not to Earth
but past it, beat upon meteors and rocky rivers,
Until my feet crash through Jupiter’s atmosphere.
This hypergravity strips away my wings and fairy crown.
I now must swim through leaded air as a mere mortal —
Nay, a sub-mortal with empty sycophant schemes dangling from ashen skin.
My eyes only see a few meters beyond myself in this graphene muck and mire.
Gravity, who once lifted my wings and helped me soar above in the lunar land,
now adds a triple weight to every breath.
Every action, every motion forward is stolen by this massive weight.
Until, I can move no more.

Alive, but deadened in this Jovian Hell.
Not free to escape, but free to ponder my release.
What release is possible?
What path may lead back to Earth,
back to the human realm?
In this moment, my once grand courtiers, schemes and plans reanimate;
they scream devious paths, knives and chemical concoctions.
“Cut us off — dare not take a breath, End this leadened rule!
Stop this existence;
You must – you must!
You abandoned all; you are alone.
Hope is lost.”
And I close my eyes.
Still… Still… waiting for the nothing.

Yet, I hear a faint jingle penetrating the Jovian air.
A soft hand lifts my head and I open my eyes
to find the order of white knights, snake-crossed and succor full,
offering soft words of wisdom and capsules of elixir.
I drink and a doorway appears.
Dare I enter? Dare I cast off this beastly burden?
Hands appear from beyond the crossing —
hands of friendships forgotten and valiant mental warriors
beckoning for me to just lift my arms and grab a hold.
Do I? Do I trust the help unlooked for?
Do I continue to drink the elixir
and allow the hands to carry me through?

Yes, I grab hold.
Inch by inch, step by step,
I am pulled through the passageway.
As I cross through the portal,
these hands pluck off the misguided plans, schemes and sycophants.
Wise words guide my bleeding soles to Earthly soil
and a glint of hope kindles,
blazing away hyper Jovian gravity.
I am just me, yet again.

And I declare my promises to stay grounded.
To accept the Earthly realm as my only home.
Not to stray — to listen to Wisdom;
not to quit the elixir mending my heart and soul.
In this acceptance is solace.
For without, I shall surely rise to greater and greater heights complete grander and grander feats,
and fall further and further
until I disintegrate and there are not the pieces to patch together into a whole.

I choose hope over dazzle,
Strength over magic,
And wellness over-exuberance.

I choose me.

Hear the author read this poem aloud below.

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Image via contributor

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When Bipolar Disorder Makes You Take On the Feelings of Others

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As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times, I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown, and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be and who I ought to be.

I began to notice I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran, I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.

And when I was alone, who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio.

I was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits. Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.

Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.

As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. It was only much later I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.

One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.

The bad feelings didn’t have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times, even disagreements on television would bother me.

I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).

My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be until he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.

Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.

After my most recent and worst meltdown — which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago — my therapist told me my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.

Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now. I know it’s a good thing I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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The Myth About Mania That Doesn't Represent My Experience With Bipolar Disorder

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Mania is often described as “euphoric” highs and extreme lows. Some people who have bipolar disorder enjoy the highs so much that they are reluctant to take medication. And who among us hasn’t read “Touched With Fire,” which is all about the creative genius that tends to accompany this disorder? While the consequences of actions performed during mania are typically regrettable and often damaging, many bipolar individuals still enjoy the high.

I’d like to set the record straight and let you know not all of us feel this way. My encounter with mania was terrifying.

Like most, I stopped sleeping. I would try to, knowing my body needed it, but the adrenaline was pumping so hard it made it impossible. Anyone who has been in bed with a racing mind that keeps them up at night will know what this feels like. Even when I did manage to catch just a couple hours of sleep, I would wake up with a jolt of energy almost as though I had received an electric shock. For me, there was nothing enjoyable at all about waking up this way.

It was exhausting, and it’s a vicious cycle of stress.

I also have no discernible work product to show for my period of “creative genius.” What I did do instead was tweet ridiculous thoughts and cause myself a gargantuan amount of embarrassment. For the rest of my life, when I remember some of the things I said on social media, my shame will smolder like embers.

I stopped eating. My weight dropped in an unhealthy way for a person of my height. When I got to the hospital I was so dehydrated and malnourished that I needed intravenous fluids.

Finally, I experienced psychosis. This occurred when my mania became so intense I began to have delusional thinking. Some people also experience hallucinations. These can be religious in nature, and mine were no exception.

Losing my grip on reality wasn’t scary while it was happening, because I was not aware of it. But afterward, it was quite possibly the most terrifying thing to experience. Just imagine how you would feel if you knew you had a disorder that could cause you to believe in things that weren’t real?

For me, it creates doubt and fear. I’m terrified that despite taking medication, it will happen again. And if it does, will I recognize it, or will it take over? I believe constantly being afraid that at any moment my mind can snap and I can lose my grip on reality is no way to live a life of confidence. Feeling as though I can’t trust my own mind anymore is melancholic.

All I can do is take my medication, go to therapy and try to eliminate stress from my life. I also pray. I pray my mania will not come back. There was nothing euphoric about it for me, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.

There are so many people who say they don’t want to be on meds because it dulls their creativity, or it makes them feel numb to emotions they want to have. Well, not me. This girl never, ever, wants to experience mania with psychosis again, and I will do everything in my power to prevent that from happening.

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Thinkstock photo via aroas.

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What I Wish I Could Tell You About My Bipolar Disorder

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To my loved ones,

I wish I could tell you exactly what I need from you. But I can’t. Having bipolar disorder means my symptoms often change, so what I need from you one day may be different the next.

I have bipolar I, which is to say that my manic episodes are severe and may include psychosis. This means that during those times, I am not myself and will not listen to reason. I may need to be put in a hospital, depending on the severity of the episode. I need for you to understand that the things I say and do while manic are not coming from me, but from a place of disordered thinking that is out of my control. I need you to love me anyway. I know that might be asking a lot.

It scares me shitless, knowing that at times I may be psychotic and unable to control my thoughts and actions. Hopefully, my medicine prevents that, but … I wish I could tell you it will never happen again.

When I’m depressed, I need you to understand that I can’t help my negative thinking. I’m trying as hard as I can, but it’s not always possible to work myself out of it. It takes time. I wish I could tell you things are good and I have a positive outlook on life, but the fact is I feel rather hopeless.

Most of the time I am managing my symptoms and I am neither manic nor depressed. I wish I could tell you to trust me when I tell you I’m doing well. I understand that maybe you can’t; even I can’t sometimes. Not having complete faith in my own self-awareness causes me incredible sorrow. I wish it didn’t.

I know it’s not really fair to ask you to forgive my behavior if I’m experiencing psychosis, yet also to believe me when I tell you I’m OK. But that’s the way this disease works – sometimes it attacks, other times it leaves you alone. If you constantly suspect I am unwell, then you’re not giving me the chance to be “normal.” And much of the time, I really am OK. I think you’ll be able to see the difference enough to know for yourself, but I need for you to give me that chance.

There may be times where I am incredibly anxious or irritable. I will do my best not to let it get the better of me, but often it does and I accidentally take it out on you. I know this is not OK. I wish I could control it better. All I can do is ask for your understanding and hope you accept my apology. I don’t like having an “ugly side” to my personality but sometimes, I do. This makes me want to isolate during these times because I understand how agitated and unbalanced I’m feeling. I wish I could tell you to leave me alone when I’m feeling this way, without you getting offended.

I wish I could tell you my medication and therapy will keep me stable for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, we just don’t know if it will. All I can do is my best, and ask you be my support system and love me no matter what, even if I’m acting like a jerk.

I wish I could tell this condition to go fuck itself. But I can’t.

Follow this journey on A Different Kind of Sober.

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Young and Bipolar: The College Search With Mental Illness

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The day I got into my dream school, I cried approximately three times. Twice, due to crushing anxiety prior to the 5 p.m.-release of decisions and the third at 5:01 when I opened my email to a flurry of “Congratulations!” and digital confetti from the college.

I cried that third time for a few reasons. Besides the overwhelming emotional relief that washed over me as soon as I realized I had been admitted, I cried because, at some points in my high school career, I thought I would never see the day I was admitted to college. After being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at a young age, I went into inpatient psychiatric hospitalization at the end of my freshman year due to a mental breakdown. At the time, I believed nothing was wrong with me. I fought to be released. By the end of the ordeal, I was diagnosed as bipolar disorder type II, a mental illness categorized by drastic mood swings and impulsive behavior. After another hospitalization, multiple medication trials, and daily struggles associated with my disorders, I became stable, content, and made it to my senior year of high school. College, finally, loomed on the horizon.

Of course, as interviews and essays approached, a question loomed over me: do I tell colleges about my mental illnesses? Disclose extremely personal information that could make or break my application? I wanted to be evaluated fairly in my applications; however, over the course of my four years in an extremely competitive, high-stress private high school, my grades had taken a toll — mainly due to motivational struggles I endured from depression. I had to make a decision: do I divulge my mental illness in a truthful reason for my dropping grades, or do I stay silent? The last thing I wanted to be was discriminated against, especially after how far I’d come in recovery. Not to mention, in a time where mental health has been shoved into a national spotlight and with ableism reigning strong, I didn’t want my mental health to be seen as a downside to my application.

In short, there’s no right or wrong answers to my questions. Google searches along the lines of “do I tell colleges about my mental illness” provided conflicting interests. In a world of promises of “you are not alone,” I couldn’t seem to find myself in line with anyone else. However, when one out of five people will struggle with a mental illness in their lifetime, I knew there were fellow seniors out in the world going through the same process as me, asking the same questions in the same Google search bars. College application decisions exist in a world behind closed doors; would a rejection mean the college was telling me it wasn’t the place for me? Or would it be a rejection based on stigma, looking past my qualifications?

So here’s what I did: I brought it up when the moment appropriately presented itself. I am fortunate enough that I never had to take a leave of absence or have any issues marked on my transcript or record. When one college asked for an essay about grit, I felt the only thing I could truthfully do was describe an account of my experiences as a bipolar student. I was accepted. In the case of my dream school, a question along the same lines arose in my in-person interview. My words sunk in my throat. Did I risk my acceptance at a school I had pined to go to for so long? With a deep breath, I said I lived with a mental illness. I didn’t disclose what I necessarily was diagnosed with but instead moved on to describe my successful recovery and activism within my school community through giving speeches about mental illness and advocating against stigma across social media. If there’s one thing I learned, it was to find the silver lining. I didn’t enjoy glossing over my struggles, pitfalls, and triumphs with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression, and presenting a watered-down version of my personal accounts. But by pointing out the upsides to my recovery, I left the interview feeling prouder that I had spoken about my mental illness in the mildest of terms rather than not bringing it up at all.

Of course, anxiety plagued me until the day that admissions decisions were released if I had done the right thing or not. But my early-decision acceptance confirmed my initial relief after the interview. Through presenting my mental illness as a learning experience and something I had gained valuable insight about life through, I felt as if I had figured out the right thing to do.

Recovery is not linear. If you are applying to college and are in a similar spot that I was in, I believe the best thing you can do is tell the truth. However much information you disclose to your schools is a personal decision; still, I abide by the rule of finding an upside to a seemingly negative situation. Describe your recovery. Talk about a time you faced the impossible and overcame it in the light of your mental illness. College admissions are very personal, and colleges want to know as much about you as they can, but you still have a decision of how much information you give them and withhold. Much more, no two cases of mental illness and no two stories are the same. Make your story your own and take control of the situation.

I have fears about going to college. Will my recovery be for naught in a new place? Will I face discrimination that other college students living with mental illnesses have? Whatever happens, college admissions are a scary, anxiety-provoking time in the lives of high school seniors; but to live through it is another feat in the face of living with mental illness.

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