Continuing with the theme of Mental Health Awareness Month, today I am going to analyze the connection between diagnosis and identity in bipolar. Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder are often seen by a percentage of the "normal" public as weakness or a personality malfunction. This misconception is passed onto the ill population, resulting in guilt, denial, and identity confusion.
When is the last time you heard someone say "I am cancer," "I am diabetes," or "I am lupus?"
Only with mental illnesses, which are so linked to emotion regulation, behavior, and "normal" functioning, do people identify so strongly with their illness. I am depressed, I am schizophrenic, I am bipolar. A physical illness is generally seen as not being one's fault, unless of course you are obese, or you smoke, drink, or otherwise abuse yourself, then you get blamed entirely for anything that goes wrong with your health, but that's another blog.
This disparity between the physical and the mental is a direct result of the guilt which is projected onto those of us suffering with mental illness. When one views oneself as somehow "other", somehow "abnormal," it can lead to tremendous feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Perhaps this stigma is what actually feeds the dysfunctional behavior some of us with a diagnosis of mental illness perpetuate in our lives.
Because of the stigma and the guilt for simply being diagnosed with a mental illness many of us who receive these hard to shake labels, deny that we actually have them. Granted, some people are incorrectly diagnosed, or misdiagnosed. However, in my own personal experience, I read book after book, and article upon article, saying to myself, "This is me." Yet at the same time I refused medical treatment for nearly a decade. Refusing treatment, for some people, can cause a diminished quality of life, many physical health problems, a host of social dysfunction, and at worst, parasuicide (suicide attempts) or suicide.
Why so much guilt, and why is it so easily absorbed? The brain and emotions feel like the "I" to most people, and when your own "I" is completely out of control it is perceived that you are out of control. No one can see the way the neurons are firing in your brain, or sense the imbalance of crossed wires as they watch you do or say something "bipolar." This is one of the reasons the connection between the self and the diagnosis is so complex, like a spider's indelible web.
Many of us do not know who we are anymore if we spend years denying our illness, refusing help, or hiding behind the disorder. Once I got help I thought, Who is this medicated person? This is not me. I have to take a cocktail of medication, I am a sick person. I am bipolar.
But then I realized I'm not.
I have bipolar disorder, it is a medical illness. I struggle with bipolar, and sometimes, I suffer with it. But it does not ultimately define me as a person. The brain is the largest unchartered area left to explore, and the sooner the knowledge of it expands, the sooner everyone will understand the mechanisms of bipolar and other mental health disorders. When the stigmas associated with these diseases can finally be shattered, maybe people won't identify them as what they are, or who they are, anymore. Perhaps the denial and guilt will not worsen people's symptoms, or cause years of pain which could have been eased, if only somewhat, by compassionate and informed treatment.