Why I See Bipolar Disorder as a Gift, Not a Weakness
I was talking recently with a friend who shared with me a question she was recently posed. Living with ADD, she was asked “how is your ADD a gift rather than a weakness?” My friend shared this me so I could think of my own mental illness in this light and it has been on my mind ever since. How is my bipolar disorder a gift to me rather than a weakness? In all honestly, it is hard for me to imagine my disorder as a gift. It has caused a lot of hurt and grief and created many hurdles and challenges for me. Most days, I wish that I didn’t live with bipolar or generalized anxiety disorder. But no matter how much I wish otherwise, bipolar remains. And so it has been a good exercise to consider what the positive pieces of bipolar might be.
I think my mental illness has made me more cognizant to other people’s hurts and challenges. When I hear of a friend going through something tough, I care for them in the way I have been cared for when I hurt. Dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts has made me a more empathetic person. Most of my friends will not be knocked down as aggressively as I am, but I want to do everything in my power to help them stay on their feet. I understand hurt and hardship and can stand by someone close to forever because I know their pain.
Depressive episodes have taught me how to see the best in people. When I’m depressed, my low self-esteem beats me up and tells me I am not a good person. In turn, however, it makes it easy for me to see other people’s strengths. Since my mind is so set on me being the worst person ever, other people suddenly seem very capable and wonderful. In the midst of being hard on myself, I can appreciate those around me. And eventually when I’m feeling better and a bit less hard on myself, I am still able to see the great aspects of other people.
Managing bipolar has taught me to slow down. When I find myself showing warning signs of mania or depression, I try to catch myself and identify what I’m feeling. Often my jaw will hurt and I’ll realize my whole body is clenched and I’m getting frustrated. I force myself to take a breath and restart whatever I’m doing. Sometimes I notice my thoughts are racing and I stop again, taking note of my surroundings and start over. Although it’s annoying to have to hit pause sometimes multiple times in a day, this forces me to live a little more slowly in a society that is always telling us to move more quickly. Those stops to take a breath require that I look around and take note of the details and scenery. I take a second to just appreciate the moment.
Mania has created some destruction, but it does allow me to be very productive and get work done quickly. This has taught me that I am capable of a lot, maybe just at a slower pace when I’m stable. I’ve written papers in a few hours, and good ones at that. So surely I am still capable of writing good papers, just in a healthier manner. For as much as my depression tells me I can’t do things, mania proves that I can.
Beyond all the characteristics bipolar has enhanced, it has also created this big, beautiful life that I have. I could play “what if” all day about what my life could be if I didn’t have a mental illness, but for as many good things as I could try to imagine, there are good things that already exist I would lose. I would never have ended up in the city I live in if I didn’t have bipolar. I would have never transferred to the college I graduated from, nor would I have gotten the degree I did. I wouldn’t have ended up with the job I hold now. And without bipolar, I wouldn’t have the friends that I do. Not only would I not be me without my mental illness, but I also wouldn’t have the life I’ve been given. And in my darkest depression, my low self-esteem will tell me that I’m not really more empathetic or that I am capable of anything. But there’s no way I could ever deny that my friends, my job, and my city are incredible things in my life and I owe thanks to bipolar for providing them.
There are probably other pieces of my disorders that are more gift than they are curse, but I’m still working on identifying them. And, there are still parts of my disorder I can’t imagine ever qualifying as a gift, namely paranoia and psychosis. This perspective doesn’t make everything easier or fix the damage that has already been done. But this question makes me stop for a moment and consider that these disorders I so vehemently hate aren’t all for naught. I am not going to stop having bipolar tomorrow so I need to learn to live with it, and thinking of it as a gift–even as a gift I don’t really want–makes living a little easier.
So, what about your illness or condition or diagnosis is a gift rather than a weakness?
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