“I am Bipolar” vs. “I have Bipolar Disorder”—Not Just Semantics.

It happened several years ago.  I was working through some difficulties with my medication.  It became an issue at work.  I had to miss almost two weeks of work.  Finally, I told my boss and she was understanding.   And so it went.  I started to tell people about my illness.

One day, I was out with two co-workers and I hadn’t yet told them. Somehow it came up over the course of the conversation.  Here’s how it happened.

“I am bipolar” I said.  Simple statement.  But, my coworker’s response changed everything.

“You HAVE bipolar disorder.  It isn’t who you ARE.”

I think a lot of people see having a mental illness in the first way I said it.  It is what defines them: either in their own eyes or how other people view them.  And that statement is often true.  You say someone is bipolar and then…you think to yourself…that explains everything…you forget every other aspect that makes that person who they are.

The problem with this perception is that it doesn’t provide a window into the reality of living with a mental illness.  I ran a marathon.  I have been a teacher.  I adore fashion.  I love travel.  I socialize with friends.  I went to a highly regarded university.  Wait…that sounds like a “normal” life.

I am in no way saying that my life has been perfect or easy or what has been traditionally defined a “normal”. My illness has had a profound affect on my life.  No doubt mania left untreated could destroy my life.  The depression has been at times debilitating.  But, if I take my medication and work really hard at it, my life can pretty much resemble a “normal” life.

We elevate survivors of cancer as courageous.  Their battle is difficult.  Their battle has been physical.  Mine mental.  But, the brain is part of our body too.  It is just the least understood and we fear what we don’t understand.

Saying I am bipolar is just part of me.  It doesn’t define me.

I will continue to put the term normal in quotes. I read somewhere that mental illness counts for 30% of all medical disabilities.  That’s a significant number.  Question: Would we call someone “abnormal” if they had cancer?

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