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Why I Believe It's OK to Say 'I Have Bipolar Disorder' and 'I Am Bipolar'

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I have bipolar disorder.

I am bipolar.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Same difference? Some will say yes, many will say no. There are a lot of positive messages out there about the fact that we are not our illnesses.

I have multiple sclerosis (MS), but MS doesn’t have me.

I have Asperger’s syndrome, but I’m not Asperger’s syndrome.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing those messages. Indeed, they are positive, optimistic and even empowering. They remind us to consider ourselves as more than just our illnesses. But, I do have some reservations, too. Or rather, a different angle.

For example, I have bipolar disorder. Bipolar doesn’t have me, I have it. It doesn’t define who I am — I am still myself. But, does it? The difference is subtle. Who would I be, without my bipolar disorder? Would I be the same person? Would I have the same quirks, habits, preferences and dislikes? How much of my bipolar disorder makes me… me?

You see, I believe that without it, I simply would not be me — at least not in the way that I am right now. Some of these traits are bothersome: They impose limitations on me (I’ll get into more details on that in a sec), and sometimes, they take over with a force stronger than a tsunami. But some other traits are just the opposite: They are positive. They make me compassionate, sensitive, empathic. They make me strong.

Yep, I just said they make me strong. Because they do! Battling with your mind day in and day out is difficult. Even with medication that keeps me for the most part stable, I have bad days. There are days I’m more sensitive, days when I don’t quite function, or even days when I function too much. I can be super depressed for a day (or three), or hypomanic for a day (or three). These are tiny episodes, not long enough to be medically declared as such, but just enough to mess with my day (or week). And when I don’t have “baby episodes,” as we could call them, I still struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. Going through all these ups and downs and managing them while trying to maintaining a semblance of a normal life takes strength. Lots of strength.

My struggles makes me strong.

Would I be as strong if I had never had to navigate all these unstable moods? I’m not so sure. Maybe. But probably not. I could do without all the yo-yo-ing, definitely. But I’m glad to have that inner strength and resilience.

But what about those limits I mentioned earlier? All those positive messages we see everywhere on social media try to steer us away from viewing ourselves as having limits, right? They have us believing that we can reach for the stars, and that anything is possible if we put our minds to it. And isn’t that a good message?

Well, yes.

But also no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely good to have this mindset of not giving up or of not withholding from trying something just because we are scared of failure. And we should never accept limits imposed on us by others. If we have a dream, we should definitely look at how we can achieve it, and go for it.

But, I believe it’s also important to understand our personal limits. They will be different for everyone, and might stem from personality, preferences or circumstances. I do have limitations, and I’ve learned to recognize them. My concentration is not as good as it used to be, I have anxiety and I do have unpredictable moods despite taking medication. Said medication also has undesirable side effects; for example, I am very fatigued in the mornings until about 10 a.m., and although I do function enough to get my daughters to school, I wouldn’t make any huge morning commitments, and I often do need to go back to bed after school drop off (I am blessed with a great neighbor who will sometimes bring them for me if I judge that I shouldn’t be driving — a good support system is key to living with any chronic illness, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) That being said, the stability the medication brings me far outweighs the side effects, so I take them diligently.

Briefly said, there are situations that are simply not a good fit for me, and fostering the ability to recognize them before throwing myself into them is a good life skill that actually helps me stabilize my moods. Otherwise, I’m exposing myself to constantly be swimming counter-current, fighting my core self — and that’s a fight no one can ever win.

I have bipolar disorder.

I am bipolar.

They are both intricately part of me.

I am myself.

Originally published: June 15, 2016
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