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When Bipolar Disorder Causes Constant, Rapid Identity Crises

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When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015, I immediately delved into research to better understand my behaviors. With self-improvement constantly in mind, I have come up with three categories to sort my behaviors under: the stuff I can’t always control (because it’s attributed to my disorder), the things that I can control (because sometimes I’m just a shitty person and I can’t blame my mental illness) and the behaviors and impulses that aren’t specifically addressed in most literature about bipolar disorder, but are more than likely connected to it. I’ve come to understand bipolar disorder is a spectrum, and like all spectrums, there are variations in what the diagnosis can look like. This ultimately means not every stone has yet been unturned. One of the behaviors that isn’t as frequently addressed when discussing the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder is the constant drive to reinvent ourselves. Personally, I call this my hat collection, because as the saying goes: I’m a person of many hats.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

In the past four or five years, I’ve carelessly considered myself a visual artist, writer, podcaster, mental health advocate, owner of at least three separate Etsy shops, a tarot reader, a poet, a performance artist, a comedian, a seamstress, a fashion blogger, a hardcore feminist, a libertarian (big yikes), an Instagram influencer, a communist, a political activist — the list goes on (and admittedly gets more and more ridiculous). I switched from role to role so quickly, I typically didn’t make it past the first couple of steps to actually earn any of these titles. This very blog is the product of my constant need for change in identity (I feel obligated to state this particular endeavor has been especially rewarding and therapeutic, and you don’t have to worry about me falling off the face of the Earth). It’s crucial to understand in the moment of establishing a new identity, I can’t be convinced I’m anything but an aspiring … whatever. I am fully certain the role I’m engaged in at the time is my absolute identity. I’m so (temporarily) dedicated to what I’m doing at that moment I create an entirely new online persona to help promote my message. I have at least seven e-mail addresses attached to my Google homepage at this very moment.

When I finally bounce back from the manic episode that ultimately fuels this behavior, I’m left feeling defeated and incredibly embarrassed. Not only do I typically not follow through with the endeavor of the week, but I make such a public stink about it, I’m left feeling like I’ve let my friends and family down.

More often than not, it initially hurts my feelings when my friends and loved ones fail to immediately jump on board with whatever I’m trying to be at the time. Every time I launch a new project or hurriedly rebrand myself in some extravagant way, I expect everyone in my life to be outwardly ecstatic for me. I initially expect shares, reposts and words of encouragement. There are a select few in my circle who always cheer me on (which I imagine starts to feel quite exhausting), and they know who they are. They’re likely to be the only people I personally know who continue to read this blog (I feel like this a good opportunity to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for your continued support).

I have the unique experience of being on the outskirts of a tight-knit group of influencers and creators in the greater southwest Florida area. When I first arrived in Fort Myers and was adopted into this crowd by way of a feminist collective called “Love Your Rebellion,” I received a high amount of attention and encouragement, specifically as a visual artist, podcaster and contributor to “Love Your Rebellion.” When I got pregnant, this attention started to shift away in my absence. By the time I tried to reintroduce myself to the community, not only had the dynamics of the community itself shifted, but my behaviors shifted in the worst way.

I had hit a major turning point in my disorder and was frequently manic (and by extension, making very spontaneous decisions). I became wildly unreliable and difficult to be around. I embarrassed my family. I started drinking pretty heavily to self-medicate and lost touch with some very important people in my life (I feel like this is a good opportunity to say I’m sorry and I miss you all).

The behaviors that led up to this particular period of my life fall under all three categories I described before. Some of my behaviors were not always controllable, because I have a mental illness. Some of my behaviors were very controllable, but I failed to keep them in check. Ultimately, the tendency to completely ruin your own life is one of those side effects of a severe mood disorder that is typically skipped over by professionals and mental health advocates alike.

Because I never dedicate my time to figuring out the algorithms of a broader exposure, I’ve put a massive burden on the people who continue to stand by my side.

Mood and personality disorders are incredibly messy and they oftentimes overlap one another. Misdiagnoses between bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD) are incredibly frequent — more so in women (because our health still isn’t taken seriously by professionals). I have periodically considered the notion that perhaps I was misdiagnosed in the first place, but there are significant differences between the disorders. Bipolar disorder and BPD share the following traits: extremity in emotion, erratic behaviors, a sense of self-importance and difficulty navigating interpersonal relationships. The major defining difference between the two is someone with an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder will eventually come down from their heightened state (mania), and fall into a depression. Someone with BPD struggles daily with their symptoms with very little relief. I don’t typically experience a traditional depressive state, but I do have significant loss of interest and energy to complete whatever I started while I felt I was on top of the world. This is most likely the root of my inability to commit to any one identity, as well as a pretty debilitating case of impostor syndrome. My self-awareness and extreme embarrassment every time this happens is also a symptom of my own form of a depressive state.

My constant drive to reinvent myself is fueled by a mania-induced sense of impending doom. I struggle with a frequent obsessive thought I’m wasting the little time I have on this planet, and I’m not measuring up to my fullest potential. When I work on a project or new endeavor, and it doesn’t immediately pan out the way I expect it to, I get angry. I’ve recently become aware I struggle immensely with an inclination toward instant gratification.

Instant gratification is defined as such: the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment. I gotta say, if I could eliminate any symptom of my mood disorder, it would be this one. This is an uncontrollable feeling, but my behaviors surrounding it can be managed with great effort. Allow me to provide an example.

About few weeks ago (on a Thursday), I dropped my iPhone 7 and shattered the screen beyond repair. I told my partner I needed a new phone, and he assured me we’d go look at phones that weekend. The cognizant part of my brain told me I should be incredibly grateful he immediately agreed to buying me a new phone. The irrational part of my brain told me to smash my phone against a wall so I wouldn’t have to wait two days. This was a perfect example of an uncontrollable emotion and a controllable correlating behavior, because I didn’t smash my phone into a wall. I’m fully aware choosing to not act like a spoiled brat is a silly thing to be proud of, but six months ago, I definitely would have done it. This is what progress looks like.

As I dedicate an honest attempt at this whole writing thing, I’m constantly having to remind myself my past behaviors have driven a lot of my friends away. I’m not sure where the numbers in my readership are coming from, but I can’t imagine that many people I know in my real life are taking me seriously in this new endeavor … and honestly, I have no choice but to be OK with that.

There is always a nagging fear I’m dead wrong in my declaration it’s my mental illness that makes me act like a total asshole sometimes. There is always the looming thought, “Maybe I’m just not a good person.” I’ve come to realize one of my triggers is being told everyone deals with these emotions, and it’s not attributed to my mental illness at all. I know that people say this in a way that’s meant to help me not feel so alone, as it’s typically said by someone who I know cares about me. The thing is, I hate this part of who I am. I hate that I struggle to see things through and I can’t focus all my energy on any one project. If I could change it, I would. I still haven’t given up on trying to change this behavior. I have to come to terms with the fact my constant hat switches must be exhausting for the people who want to continue to support me. I have to fully accept this is a pseudo “boy-who-cried-wolf” situation, and I risk the misfortune of losing my support system entirely. I’ve already seen the beginning signs of that happening.

This is what bipolar disorder (and many mood and personality disorders on the spectrum) looks like. It’s difficult to expect people to fully comprehend and accept the honest-to-God truth of what my disorder persuades me to do on one hand, and (on the other hand) constantly struggle to hold myself accountable. If only one factor of this post sticks with you, I hope it’s the understanding that we, as people with mental illnesses, can be aware of the damage we cause ourselves and others, whether that be by constantly reinventing ourselves, or some other distressing symptom of our disorders.

We honestly can’t always control the drive behind our behavior, but we’re capable of recognizing where we can improve for the betterment of our support circle, and most importantly, ourselves. Because of this, I think it’s direly important to hold us accountable for our actions, even though that doesn’t feel very good for us to acknowledge.

This blog is being written not only for the people with mental illnesses, but for the people who haven’t given up on supporting us. Please understand there is oftentimes a huge part of our psyche that tells us to find identity in something besides our mental illness. We live in a society that either demonizes us, or categorizes us as incredibly gifted. At least personally, this drives me to justify my constant creation and abandonment of new endeavors by believing and perpetuating the idea I am gifted, and should explore all avenues of creativity. This is going to push us to try new things, and in an effort to distance ourselves from our diagnosis, we (OK, maybe it’s just me) push for a rebranding of our very selves. Hold us accountable by checking in on where we’re at mentally, but be gentle.

As I’ve mentioned before (and frequently in this particular thought piece), we can’t control what our disorders tell us to do, but we have the capability to strive towards bettering ourselves and holding ourselves responsible against the behaviors that we feel compelled to act on. Ultimately, this is one of the lesser discussed side effects of living with a mood or personality disorder, and when we come to acknowledge how we’re acting, it can cause us a great deal of depression and self-doubt. I feel it’s pertinent to ending the stigma to understand why we exhibit behaviors that are easily perceived to be obnoxious.

If you love someone who struggles with a constant ebb and flow in self-identity, the best thing you can do is provide them with the space to work through the kinks, and be there to discuss the aftermath. If you struggle with frequent identity crisis, I hope you come to understand you’re not alone, and eventually you will find the right fit to move your identity past your diagnosis. And as always, you are valid.

Getty image by Anna Ismagilova

Originally published: December 2, 2019
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