What Being Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder Taught Me About Myself

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in early 2016 and it terrified me. It was the least unexpected diagnosis I’ve ever received, but that didn’t make it any easier. Bipolar II Disorder, the words hung over me like a label I would never be able to shake.

Bipolar disorder was something that happened to other people, not to me. Yet, here I was. Sitting in a psychiatrist’s office with an explanation for what was going on in my head. It was an answer that came with supports, including medication, to help me feel better. That should have meant the world to me, right? On one level it did, but there was also this voice in the back of my mind telling me not to talk about.

I was scared. Scared and questioning everything. I didn’t want to be bipolar. Does anyone? But I am not my illness. I have bipolar disorder, but I am not bipolar. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but in the early days it enabled me to put one foot in front of the other. This distinction, although it looks semantic to some, allowed me to let go of my internalised stigma.

Stigma that I thought I knew how to deal with, that I thought I had overcome. I was no stranger to talking about living with depression and anxiety or the need for us, as a society, to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues and how we talk about them. Yet, here I was. Falling into a trap I had seemingly set myself; differentiating between one mental illness and another, in a way that didn’t exactly fill me with confidence or the belief that I would be able to get back to who I used to be.

Who did I used to be? I’ve dealt with bouts of the depression throughout most of my adult life, so I know what depressed me and non-depressed me look like. But other than that, who am I? I’ve always been my most productive during bouts of insomnia when I, inexplicably, have more energy than I know what to do with. What if it’s not inexplicable? What if I was experiencing hypomania, but didn’t know it? Where does that leave the old me?

This is where therapy played and still plays, the biggest role in my life. That space where it’s OK to ask myself those questions. That space where it’s OK to explore the answers. That place where it’s OK. It’s OK to feel what you’re feeling, what I’m feeling. To sit with that feeling, to pick it apart and understand why it affects me the way it does. That space to process and realise that processing is a process, it takes time. It all takes time, giving myself that time was and continues to be important. There is no click of the finger and everything makes sense. Some things will never make sense. Maybe some things are not supposed to make sense.

During the first few months following diagnosis, it was tempting to go through everything I’ve ever done and view it through the lens of someone who may have been ill at the time; to see past events as episodes of hypomania, to put everything neatly in a box. But life doesn’t come wrapped up in a bow.

Some things will never make sense. Maybe some things are not supposed to make sense. Now there is a mantra I never saw myself having. Yet, here I am. Here I am, with a mantra that allows me to confront aspects of myself and things said and done that I’ve previously run from. Here I am, with a mantra that allows me to stop and breathe. The kind of breathing that comes from no longer holding my breath.

I am not my illness. I am not my illness now and I wasn’t my illness when I didn’t even know I was ill. How could I be? Maybe those traits and actions are just me. Maybe I’d say, do and feel those things regardless of my mental health status. Maybe some of those things are, and were, illness related. Maybe I’ll never know. It’s likely I’ll never know. And I’m OK with the not knowing because maybe some things are not supposed to make sense.

What I do know, is that I am capable. I am capable of taking care of myself. I am capable of feeling. I am capable of caring. I am capable of being me, the me of the here and now. I’m not quite the old me, whoever she was. But I am capable of being me, whoever that turns out to be.

These days, as I take my medication, I remember how far I’ve come. I remember what it was like to not want to be alive, but not particularly wanting to be dead either. I remember thinking that I would always feel like that. But I don’t feel like that now. I’m in a good place and from this good place, the last two years manage to feel like a lifetime ago, while also feeling like they was only yesterday. In the grand scheme of things, they were only yesterday.

Living with bipolar disorder has taught that it’s OK to question myself. That not having life all figured out is how most people feel, at least, some of the time.
I am stronger than I thought I was. I survived. I showed up and did the work. I am still doing that work. I will continue to do the work because my mental health depends on it.

Paula Dennan is a feminist, activist, writer, and book reviewer who swapped city life for the quietness of Co. Kerry, Ireland. She was once a regular runner until her health got in the way, she hopes to get back to it someday. Paula can be found on her website, Facebook and Twitter