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Do I, or Am I?

June 4, 2007

In some of the places I’ve been reading about bipolar disorder, I’ve encountered what seems two major approaches to dealing personally with BD, chiefly those who have bipolar disorder, and those who are bipolar. On the surface, I’m tempted to say that it really shouldn’t matter one way or another, that it’s an issue of semantics. The problem is that we live in a world where, as much as I might prefer to rant and rage about it, labels matter. There will be people in the future that I have to discuss this matter with – how will I tell them? Is one way more correct than the other? Is one way better than the other, correctness aside?

For some reason, when I say to myself “I’m bipolar,” it just doesn’t sound right. Even the Wikipedia article on bipolar disorder typically doesn’t refer to bipolar individuals, rather individuals who have, or suffer from bipolar disorder. When I look in Merriam-Webster’s Online dictionary, I’m treated to the following as definition for the word, bipolar:

Function: adjective
1 :
having or marked by two mutually repellent forces or diametrically opposed natures or views
2 a : having or involving the use of two poles or polarities b : relating to, being, or using a transistor in which both electrons and holes are utilized as charge carriers
3 : relating to, associated with, or occurring in both polar regions <bipolar species of birds>
4 : being, characteristic of, or affected with a bipolar disorder

So, for me to say that I’m bipolar is technically accurate. I’m guessing the reason why I hesitate to say it is the following quote, from John McManamy in his article titled, “Bipolar Disorder – Part II“:

“Unlike diabetes and other physical diseases, bipolar defines who we are, from the way we perceive colors and listen to music to how we taste our food. We don’t HAVE bipolar. We ARE bipolar, for both better and worse.”

You see, there is a part of me that just doesn’t swallow that. I want to say that bipolar disorder doesn’t define me, that it’s my task in life to define it. I can have bipolar disorder, and have my tastes and senses altered by it, without actually being bipolar. I’m tempted to say that the task of any person in life is to transcend our challenges, to define and be our own selves, and that the statement from McManamy reflects a passive and victim-like mentality that I don’t share. That’s what I’ve been content to say up to this point, and what a part of me would still like to say.

The problem is, as noble and defiant as all of that may sound, there is a truth to what McManamy says, a truth that is backed up by hard logic and the technical sense of the word. While it can be argued that what works for one person must not necessarily work for everyone, McManamy describes a manic phase happening to him in 1988 … just oriented from that time period, we’re talking 20 years of experience going into McManamy’s position. I was particularly moved by another thing he said on his page introducing his life story:

“I entertain no illusions about who the true master is in this relationship.  I am fully aware of what can happen to me the next time this companion I’ve named “Fred” decides to show me who’s boss.  But for right now, I can live with that. I really have no other choice.”

What this reminds me of, oddly enough, are accounts from people who routinely deal with bears. Understanding that the bear is stronger and at heart a wild animal goes a long way in helping these people stay alive and uninjured – getting defiant, losing one’s vigilance, and most importantly losing respect are fast ways to get hurt around bears. I can see where this relates to bipolar disorder, and can therefore also see where this position isn’t so much passive victim mentality, but rather an acknowledgment and acceptance of how things are.

I must admit, when I first started writing this article, I was more convinced that the proper way to describe myself would be as someone who has bipolar disorder. Through writing this, it seems I’ve started to see things differently, and I think – at least for me – the ‘semantics’ are rather a matter of degree of acceptance. I think the fact that saying “I’m bipolar” still isn’t easy for me shows that I’m not as far along the path of acceptance as I’d previously thought, and that I have a ways to go yet. At least now I have something to think about, and a new way to think about it.

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