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When You Can't Tell Where You End and Your Mental Illness Begins

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I laugh a little too loud. I talk too fast. I’m quick and witty. I’m the show. Ain’t it great?

Is this the real me, or is mania creeping up? Where do I end and my symptoms begin? That answer lies with a doctor who is a talented diagnostician. My former psychiatrist could detect my mania even before I sat on the couch and long before I myself knew. But the perennial question for many people with bipolar disorder is where the line is drawn between your own personality and your own personality projecting through the loudspeaker that is mania. And depression, too. Sadness, grief and melancholy are part of the human condition, but when does it become a part of a human disorder?

These answers are hard. I have learned to detect subtle changes in my personality that seem out of place. For example, when I am quick to anger and my tongue becomes poisonous, I know this is symptomatic of my bipolar — even though this is normal in many people. I must think to myself, Is this dysphoria setting in or am I just peeved? Who knows?

To draw the line between the bounds of your natural emotions and personality and the onset of your disorder is a profound lesson. One must determine a baseline of self and then beware of those boundaries. For example, when I suddenly lose all sense of my humor and it is replaced by impatience, I know that is not me. I told a close friend to fuck off because he couldn’t hear his phone ring. Alarm bell.

Know your alarm bells. If it doesn’t feel quite right, it’s probably not your natural self. But we who experience manic depression often operate in the gray area between euthymia and the insidious creep of some symptom, and this doesn’t really matter. It’s when it progresses to the point where there is damage done that we seek to prevent, but even the most skilled at self-diagnosis can be easily fooled. I know I have.

The answer is there is a line, but it can be invisible. And it moves. We must take stock of our baseline characters and personalities, and when these boundaries are crossed, we must recognize it and act. Full-blown episodes of mania, depression, psychosis etc., must be averted and the ability to shine your own insight onto yourself is the moat around the castle of you.

You are not your illness. It is what you have, not who you are.

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Unsplash photo via Maranatha Pizarras

Originally published: November 16, 2017
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