The 1st night of my support group, that I had to drive over 60 miles to get to (that was the closest one), I was amazed by how many people that were there. There had to be at least 20. So the facilitator, who has become a good friend of mine (we’ll call her “R”), started off the group by having us go around the room and introduce ourselves, say what disorder we had, and how our week went. (It was a weekly meeting.)
She finally gets to me and I have heard many people say “I have bipolar, I have depression, I have schizophrenia…”, but it didn’t really register with me. So, I begin by saying that I’m Susan and I’m Bipolar. My week… Before I could finish, “R” has interrupted me (and to this day I am so very grateful for this) and says to me, “You HAVE Bipolar Disorder. You are not your illness. It is a part of you. It is something you have. It does not define you.” I may be paraphrasing (it was quite a long time ago), but the main idea is the same. I am not defined by my mental illness. This has stuck with me for many years and is something I pass on to others whenever I hear someone say “I am Bipolar”. NO, you have Bipolar Disorder. “I’m depressed.” NO, you have depression.
By saying we are our mental illness, we let it define who we are. At that point, the illness takes over and for me that just isn’t an option. Our mental illness is just one of the many things that makes us who we are. Whether we are proud of it or want to hide from it, it is a part of us. Once we accept this, we can truly begin to explore all the possibilities it has to offer.
Yes, you read that right…possibilities. I look at my mental illness as an opportunity to educate people that we are just regular people and not to be feared simply because we are “mentally ill”. Because we all know how the media loves to portray us. It’s an opportunity to educate legislators (state and national) on what policies would actually work in the world of mental health care and suicide prevention. It’s an opportunity to reach out to people who have lost someone to suicide and give them a glimpse of what their loved one may have been feeling. To help them in the grieving process. It’s an opportunity to speak to someone who is newly diagnosed or maybe not even diagnosed yet and assure them they are not alone. There are so many opportunities available to us. We just have to reach for them and start achieving them.
Now, I know having a mental illness is not all sunshine and roses. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. I’ve known those deep, dark days where it never seems like any light can penetrate it. I’ve been to the abyss and almost not made it back. There is a real danger to mental illness. My point is that acceptance and perception can go a long way to improving those dark days. By accepting what we have and realizing we are not our illness, being willing to be our own advocate and an advocate for others, our perception of the illness can begin to change.
I keep very busy with advocacy and suicide prevention work. I still have my dark days, but I push on (as I know we all do). The whole point of this is that “the being bipolar” tends to pigeonhole us into a label which can victimize us. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly no victim and others I know are not as well. By saying “I have bipolar”, this allows us to take ownership of the illness. To relegate it to just being a part of us and not the whole of us.
I’ll leave you with a couple quotes:
“I HAVE Bipolar Disorder. I am NOT Bipolar. I am NOT my illness. My illness is PART of me.” – Anonymous
“I’m more than you know
I’m more than you see here
I’m more than you let me be
I’m more than you know
A body in a soul
You don’t see me but you will
I am not invisible
I am here”