Bipolar – something I am? Or something I have?

This week I’ve been reading A Lifelong Journey: staying well with manic depression/bipolar disorder (it’s quite old now as it was published in 2005, but it remains in print for anyone interested). At the book’s heart is a collection of first-person narratives by people with bipolar, which the author, Sarah Russell, has grouped into thematically linked chapters (e.g. “Beginning the journey”, “Choosing medication and other treatments”). I have been particularly struck by one contributor, a 54 year old GP named Robert, who is unequivocal in his view of bipolar as an illness which is entirely separate from his sense of self. “My strategy,” he writes, “is to see the problem as the manic depression and not me as a person. I separate myself from the illness. I see the need for me to be in control of the manic depression, so that it doesn’t influence my life too much” (p15).

I suppose you could say that’s a very rational way of looking at bipolar, particular for someone who is heavily invested in the medical model. I have bipolar; bipolar is an illness; illness is something to suppress, control or cure. This is the way most people, quite understandably, view chronic physical health problems, for example diabetes or high blood pressure. Most people develop this type condition rather than being born with it, so they have to learn to accept both diagnosis and the corollary that they most likely have the illness for life, and there are certain things they must now do (see medical practitioners regularly, undergo tests, take medication, make lifestyle changes) if they wish to control the illness. Otherwise, the illness is likely to rule – or even pose a risk to – their lives.

Much of the above holds true for bipolar. So why was it that when a good friend said to me the other day, “I wish I could take away your bipolar!”, I froze in horror? After all, she had been driven to say it after more than a year of watching me struggle as my moods move back and forth. Over the years, untreated bipolar has cost me friendships; exacerbated relationship problems; terminated two career choices and interrupted another; made me periodically unable to look after my own children; and driven me to want to take my own life on many occasions. Why wouldn’t I want someone to wave a magic wand and take all of that away? The thing is that, unlike Robert, I am not sure I can say that my bipolar and my self are separate entities. My symptoms started very early in life, so by the age of 12 I was experiencing both depressions and what I now recognise as hypomanic symptoms (my current urges to run in the street now helps me make sense of the “itchiness” in my muscles which had me struggling not to bolt from the classroom). My unchecked bipolar symptoms shaped my adolescence, and that stage of life isn’t referred to as the “formative years” for nothing. Bipolar has moulded my character, and although I know I have plenty of flaws, overall I like who I am. I also know that I’m far from the only one to feel this way – many people who blog or tweet define themselves as “a bipolar person” (or bear!) or use the adjective “bipolar” to refer not to the condition, but to themselves (e.g. “I’m bipolar, so anything that messes with my sleep patterns is really bad news.”)

Then there’s the fact that bipolar, unlike many mental disorders, has aspects that are perceived positively (by both people with a bipolar diagnosis, and by the general population). Hypomania is like an extension of some aspects of my personality which serve me well in life. I like to be creative. I enjoy being “an ideas person” and “a people person”. I love to network, to develop and sustain work relationships and friendships by being open, charming and a little bit flirtatious. It’s also useful that when required I can focus single-mindedly on a task until it’s done. Hypomania takes all of these qualities that are in me, and make them more so, so that I find it very difficult to know where the line occurs between what is “me” and what is “bipolar”. It’s exactly that kind of imaginative, flexible thinking that Tom Wotton explores in The Bipolar Advantage, and which some bipolar people working in creative fields are scared of losing if they accept medication. And don’t let’s forget that hypomania itself feels great. It expands the doors of one’s perception (as I recently discussed over at the International Bipolar Foundation) whilst avoiding almost all of the negativity that comes with full blown mania, irritable mania or a mixed episode. Some of the experiences I’ve had while hypomanic have been so glorious and transcendent that there is no way I would give up having lived through them.

I can’t even say that I could wholeheartedly give up all the years – and adding up all the episodes in my life, it must indeed be years – that I have spent clinically depressed. Every day that I spent depressed was, by definition, horrible. I of course regret that so much of my life has passed in that state, particularly as it was at its worst in my teens and twenties when I ought to have been living life to the full. Yet I still can’t entirely wish it away. For example, I have weathered some major life crises such as divorce, major relocation, and living in debt, with surprising resilience. It’s common for people to feel that divorce is the worst thing that has ever happened to them, and of course I won’t deny that it was tough. But was it as tough as the pain I’d already lived through in my depressions? No way. Something about surviving acute lows had given me coping skills I didn’t know I had. And depression has definitely given me a better developed sense of empathy, which I have made use of working in health and social care. When my son became unwell with anxiety and panic attacks after changing school, I was able to draw on my own past to help him to understand and get through the experience. Later he told me that he had found me very supportive and understanding in what was a time of great difficulty, and that meant a great deal to me. It was really hard, talking him through panic attacks and suicidal feelings, breath by breath, thought by thought, but at the same time I knew that no-one else in the family had the lived experience needed to do that.

Yet while I feel that bipolar is something I am, I respond to its more obvious manifestations as if it’s something I have, making appointments with clinicians and asking them to help me medicate it into submission. It’s probably fair to say I want things both ways: I don’t want to have my career and relationships damaged, but nor do I want to be medicated out of those parts of bipolar which I feel are intrinsic to my personality. Shortly after diagnosis, I bought Tom Wootton’s second book, Bipolar In Order. At the time, I saw my condition as entirely negative, and I was not at all ready to hear Tom’s message about seeing bipolar as something we should embrace, rather than something we should try to eradicate. Maybe I am now.

A final word: when accessing the crisis team a few months ago, part of my agitated state was a preoccupation with the “am/have” question. In the car on the way to the hospital, I looked over at my partner and asked him, “Would you say bipolar is something I am, or something I have?” He stared back me as if for the first time he thought I was truly detached from reality. “I think it’s something you suffer from.”


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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23 Responses to Bipolar – something I am? Or something I have?

  1. showard76 says:

    I think I swing from the am to have thoughts with my BPD, when I am feeling more ‘well’ I think of it as something I have that I need to manage or control, but when I am in a phase or crisis then it becomes something I am and I see nothing beyond it :/

    • I think one of the differences between bipolar and BPD is the postivity with which people regard bipolar in comparison to BPD – as you are all too well aware, I know. I wanted to ask you whether you feel that the ups you get are something you’d be reluctant to give up? Or is it all too outweighed by the pain of the crises for you? Don’t feel you have to answer if you don’t want to xx

      • showard76 says:

        Indeed the regard is very different for the two conditions! I do love the up’s, yeah, being able to manage on 4 hours sleep, being so productive, and having fun – all those things are great, the only problem is the inevitable crash, which could be weeks or months later and I am also far more risk taking, impulsive and destructive when on an up phase which is not good for a variety of reasons, from promiscuity to physical danger – if I could have the up’s without those side effects I would keep them all the time. Unfortunately we don’t get to choose which bits we get 😦 xx

  2. phylor says:

    Oops, my comment just disappeared, I think. I was trying to say that I’ve just recently been diagnosed with Bipolar 2 which explains so much of my past and present life, it’s scary. I’d been diagnosed with chronic depression years ago, and to be truthful, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t depressed from early childhood on. While Bipolar 2 isn’t as serious a condition as Bipolar 1, there isn’t the highs, the creativity, the focus. Instead, the depression deepens (antidepressants don’t work well with bipolar 2), your thoughts race, you can’t concentrate, you feel totally alone, you get irritable and angry. I get mixed episodes where the depression gets worse and I have furies. It wasn’t til a total meltdown in mid-November with a trip to the ER and a talk with my dr. the next day, that bipolar 2 had even been thought of. I spent from November on, trying to find help with my crisis — about as depressed as I get, cycling, furies, crying, etc, and wasn’t able to find a day program that would take me on. Finally, in early December, I got an appointment with a mental health professional for mid-January, where the diagnosis of bipolar 2 was confirmed, meds were tweeked abit (my doctor had prescribed pysche meds because she, like me, kept thinking I would get into a program and my meds would be “fixed). I go to see the mental health professional again in a month — I’m to call, of course, if I have trouble with the meds, or if I totally meltdown. I thought my furies before where part of being so depressed, not because of another mental health condition. So, as to the question of whether I am the condition or not, I’m still working on that. So much of my past, present and personality — who I have been and who I am, is tied into this condition that I’ve probably had for more than 40 years without knowing it. I’m working my feelings through, keeping track of how things are going, and thinking of starting a separate blog (from my general one about life, chronic illness and chronic pain) just to deal with the process. Thanks so much for your honesty, and for posing such an important question. Hope I haven’t done a double up comment — like I said the first one I was working on disappeared.

  3. No worries, only one comment here! Hope it wasn’t too annoying to have to repeat yourself. I don’t actually know whether I have bipolar 1 or bipolar 2 – my psychiatrist doesn’t feel it’s a useful distinction. Most people would say that I am bipolar 2 as well, because I don’t get true mania and have had some hallucinations. “wrong” beliefs and paranoia (when I was very depressed) but never really true psychosis. Until last year, depression was my main issue and my highs were fleeting and often irritation rather than a feeling of elation. That’s all changed in this episode, highs are the main problem (whether irritable, elated or panicky and agitated) and so treatment has focussed on getting me down from that! That’s probably part of the reason why I feel much more invested in the term “bipolar” now – when I got diagnosed as bipolar before, back when I was 21, I didn’t fully feel that it was “me” (hence I walked away from the treatment offered). These days there is no doubt in my mind and it makes sense for me of so many past behaviours, experiences and feelings.

  4. JuliesMum says:

    Hello Purplepersuasion, I always love reading your posts (I particularly liked this one). I have just received a Liebster award, which gives me the opportunity to choose some more recipients, so I chose yours as one of mine. The details are in my post Juliesmum.

    • Wow, thanks so much! I confess I am not very good with awards, I tend to struggle to pass them on (similar to the paralysis I feel about doing follow Fridays on Twitter – so much anxiety that I will miss out someone incredibly good and deserving) but I really apprecuate your kind words, thanks! xx

  5. Trish says:

    A very thought-provoking post–thank you for sharing Purplepersuasion. I used to think of myself as having mental illness until one day I was watching a TV program on suicide and one of the “experts” was adamant that we do not HAVE mental illness, we ARE NOT mental illness, we EXPERIENCE mental illness. That every experience is different. I thought ummmm…. our experiences do shape us but I believe they do not define us. That made sense to me and I have now changed the way I speak and think about my experience with mental illness. Yes, it is ongoing and ever-changing, and I do work with a lot of people who are experiencing mental illness who have similar events/symptoms/even basis for psychosis which makes me feel less alone, but basically how I view my experiences and what I learn from that experience is different because I am me. I am me. More than anything, I want to love me.


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  10. Jackie says:

    I am ready to embrace my hypomanic episodes. I miss them. I want them back because that was the closest I FELT to God here on earth, not in a delusional way. I FELT more like a disciple of Christ.

    • It’s interesting that you should say that – I was only saying recently to someone that I feel totally the opposite. I titally mistrust any spiritual/religious feelings I have when I am a little manic, becauase a) I know I am sick and b) I *never* have those feelings when I am euthymic. So to me, they are pathological, pure and simple.

  11. AMG280565 says:

    The other day a friend said to me ‘You’re bipolar right?’ i thought about that and decided I AM NOT bipolar: I GET bipolar or I HAVE a bout of bipolar or I HAVE a history of bipolar disorder. It is an illness in the same way you get the flu or a cold. You get sick, you get better. Sometimes you take a while to get better. When I have an episode, I do not SUFFER from bipolar, I am SICK. I will not be defined by an illness with a label when I am in good health.

    • That’s fine! Utterly your prerogative. I – and many people with a bipolar diagnosis – feel differently, that it is a component of our personalities. It’s exactly these issues/differences I wanted to explore. Personally I remain in a lengthy, active phase of the illness so I don’t have the luxury of saying that “I have a history of bipolar”. I do have to disagree however that having separate acute episodes is like getting the flu or a cold. Several bouts of one, continues recurrent illness is completely different to having separate bouts of unrelated illnesses. Also colds/flu are things that all humans get – which is manifestly not the case with bipolar – and there is nothing you can do to prevent catching a common cold (short of living in some sort of air-filtered bunker, maybe!) whereas there are things we can try to do (take meds, get enough sleep, avoid stress, exercise) to reduce the incidence of bipolar relapses. So I’m afraid I don’t think that’s a very good analogy! But I totally defend your right to feel that bipolar is something that episodically happens to you, rather than defining or influencing your character.

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  13. maybe it’s slightly different for someone only diagnosed with major/chronic depression (even though I suspect I have slight hypomanic episodes that go undiagnosed) – I’d take the depression away in a heartbeat given the chance. I’ve always struggled with depression since a pre-teenager, so I’m fully aware it’s shaped who I am, and there may be many good things about me that I like that would go away if I hadn’t had that formative experience, or things about me which contributed to the depression which would have to change if I wanted the depression to go away or never have existed, but either way, I don’t think they’re worth it. Maybe it’s because my depression isn’t really under control at the moment (and hasn’t been for the last 2-3 years) but I’d rather be boring, or even a totally different person, than have these highs or (more often than not) lows. My boyfriend would probably totally disagree with me, and I even feel a little bit guilty and self-hatey for saying so, but considering the amount of time I’ve spent with suicidal thoughts in the past, I think wishing I didn’t have depression, even if it meant being a totally different person, is probably better than wishing I wasn’t alive at all! I envy your attitude though as I think I know it’s a better one to have 🙂

  14. Pipsterish says:

    My Bipolar started early, as with you, although I wasn’t diagnosed until my thirties. It might have been my twenties, but a major family tragedy got in the way.

    I don’t think I consider Bipolar something I am. It’s definitely something I have. At the same time, I don’t think medical science is advanced enough to treat it effectively, reliably or appropriately, so I say ‘I am’ bipolar in the same way someone who has lost their legs will say they’re an amputee.

    Despite that, I think Bipolar has made me who I am in the sense that you talk about. The things I have experienced and lived through. There’s a great sense of being a survivor, which is not to say I don’t resent it. It’s taken career choices, education opportunities, relationships (and any chance of a family). Oh, I resent it terribly sometimes!

    That question though… it’s difficult for the above reason and impossible for one other. From reading your post I get the impression you have had more periods of hypomania and mania than myself. Yet… it’s the hypomania that makes me pause most of all. How to describe hypomania to someone who hasn’t had the pleasure? It can’t be done. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for a period of time, this place, this earth, and everyone in it becomes Heaven, and as a rule atheists don’t get to experience Heaven. It’s like cheating.

    Also, I often say hypomania is like being on the best drugs in the universe and not paying for it later. But we do pay for it, don’t we? If not with that mad, manic scramble to keep the euphoria by destroying ourselves and everything around us, or by the ridiculous crazed delusions, then with the long, deep, dark atypical depressions which I often liken to the old woman, paralysed into terror on her bed in the japanese version of The Grudge.

    This current depression is the longest of my life (now over two years), and it’s a clear deviation from my cycle. I haven’t had a hypomanic or manic episode since I was diagnosed, and I’m due one. Despite knowing all I know now, and everything I’ve learnt, there’s a good chance I’ll refuse to be medicated out of it when it comes along. In all honestly, I’ve even told the team this, because I remember it well. I remember how irresistible it is, how consuming, how affirming, how much like freedom it is after depression. And after this one, doubly so. I’m not sure they quite understand.

    Yes, being rid of bipolar at the beginning, with all of my memory of this life gone, would be preferable. Being rid of it now, when it’s due to do that perfect thing to my brain… I can’t want that even if I try. It’d be like losing weight by having your digestive system removed.

    It’s a quandary.

    Sorry for the long reply. I blame Twitter completely.

  15. Eli Burnham says:

    I blame my depression on my bipolarity, my illness, usually.

    But sometimes, I blame myself because I mismanaged $75,000 and lost it all over the course of one year. Now I’m stuck in a career I have zero passion for. Barely making ends meet. I’m depressed. And I am stuck.

    So do I blame my illness or myself?

    They’re completely intertwined.

    You are what you do and say, and if you do and say things because of an illness, you are that illness…. to an extent. We’re also the best parts of ourselves when there are no symptoms. I’m a hybrid sick and non-sick person.

    I probability sound nuts… not sure if I’ve said it right due to the 3 glasses of champs:)

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