I am not my diagnosis.
I faced my reflection and repeated that sentence at least a hundred times, probably more, over the course of several months. At first it felt ridiculous. After two weeks, it felt like pointless repetition. After a month it had become a habit and was oddly comforting. After two months I was shocked to realize that, sure enough, I finally believed it.
Receiving a mental health diagnosis can feel like you’ve been assigned an enormous fault; akin to being presented with a boulder, shackled to your neck with an unbreakable chain, to carry through each day until your back threatens to break under its weight. My research began in the parking lot and did nothing but fuel the denial. I didn’t think I could possibly be Bipolar- I’m moody, quirky and a little strange, but was I really *that* crazy?!
It’s hard to see so much of yourself listed as a symptom of illness, a definition of malady. It’s so difficult to have to choose between being open about your struggle, knowing you’ll possibly face judgement from a black-and-white world that will discount you on the basis of it, and foregoing support by keeping your ‘label’ a secret. Being immediately lumped in with those who commit atrocities- despite the fact that they are few and far between- is absolutely devastating. Stigma doesn’t discern between those of us living normally with common, manageable diagnoses and those unfortunate few who make headlines.
Over the next few days I read so many articles and studies based around Bipolar II, and all they did was depress the hell out of me. According to the Psychiatric Times, roughly 15% of those diagnosed will commit suicide, and that number is assumed to be quite a bit higher due to the fact that many go undiagnosed. 50% will attempt suicide, and 80% report contemplating taking their own lives. A person with a diagnosis on the Bipolar spectrum has a decreased life expectancy of 9 to 20 years.
I was already depressed when I was diagnosed with Bipolar II. Everything I read only held me there more firmly. Chronic, recurrent, debilitating, on and on and on. Each article listed the current protocol to help the afflicted live as normal of a life as possible; after the nightmarish few months before, that sounded fantastic. As time has gone on and the extreme highs and lows have leveled out, I’ve started looking for what none of those bleak, clinical articles described: something positive.
I changed my search criteria. The results that returned were much fewer in number, but convincing: there’s an undeniably strong link between Bipolar disorder and extreme creativity, even creative genius. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Robert Schumann, composer. Brilliant authors Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe. Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Vivien Leigh. Florence Nightingale. My favorite philosopher, Fredrich Nietzsche. Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams, both of whose suicides brought extensive media coverage in the aftermath.
I’ve made a conscious decision to stop trying to hide my diagnosis and start finding appreciation for it anywhere that I possibly can. The prognoses, the mortality rates and the long list of associated physical conditions aren’t going to disappear regardless of which side of the coin anyone chooses to look at; but for those of us who have been handed that boulder to carry, why shouldn’t we search for positivity wherever we can find it?
There are days when I feel like the Bipolar parts of my brain are totally running the show. Bright and abrasive lighting setting off my anxiety, a sudden downward swing making simple tasks almost impossible, the medication making my head pound. Irrational fears, crushing sadness, unable to eat or struggling to get out of bed. Then there are the other days. Inspiration to crochet elaborate intarsia pieces without a pattern, completely out of the blue. The urge to cook big dinners using only my mother’s old recipes that I thought I’d forgotten a decade ago, suddenly remembered in detail. The need to write or take photos, sometimes both, that will remain a maddening itch until it’s been sated. Interest becomes compulsion, again and again. These little pieces are so much easier to handle, their edges much more blunt and inviting, but they’re still parts of the very same dysfunctional whole.
I still have so much that I want to learn. My writing and photography are amateur at best, but both have been such an incredible outlet through the past year. I can’t crochet as often as I’d like but but as my children grow, those opportunities will grow as well. Part of accepting my diagnosis has been acknowledging that some of the things that truly make me ‘me’ are, at least partially, rooted in my illness. It’s the medium I plant my seeds in, and the water that brings them to life. There are triumphs amidst the tragedies even if they never make headlines.
I am not my diagnosis, but we’re definitely on speaking terms now.