Accepting a mental health diagnosis
Back in my public defender days, I worked for a time in various psychiatric units representing people being involuntarily committed for treatment. As I listened to clients describe their delusions, I often thought, “How can you not realize that this is CRAZY?!” The government implanted tiny listening devices in your ears to spy on you? REALLY?! The entire experience left me with one overriding impression: this shit was real. Sit alone in a room with someone talking to their imaginary friend and you’ll believe in mental illness, too.
Despite the obviousness of their symptoms to everyone else, denial was common. This is understandable. After all, what reality do we know other than the one we experience? How would you feel if you were Neo and Morpheus tried to tell you about The Matrix? This is probably what it feels like to be told that your delusions aren’t real.
I quickly learned that the most common problem with bipolar disorder is NOT that there aren’t effective treatments, because there are. The most common problem is that people refuse to believe they are bipolar and refuse treatment. After all, why take medication if there’s nothing wrong with you?
In my opinion, bipolar disorder uniquely lends itself to denial. Here’s the thing about bipolar disorder: you’re normal, and then you’re not. A bipolar person can go long stretches of time with a normal mood, and alternative explanations can always be found for the not-normal moods. Typically, it takes six years for a person to be correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (Footnote 1.)
Despite my education and experience, I still struggled to wrap my brain around my diagnosis of Bipolar 2. People are complicated, which makes mental illness complicated. While it was so easy to see my clients’ mental illnesses, seeing it in myself blew my mind. I was probably hypomanic in college, but college is a crazy time for a lot of people. I became severely depressed after the birth of my first child, but many new moms gets depressed. When I became very hypomanic, my basement had just flooded with sewage and I had two little kids. Who wouldn’t be stressed out?
The line between mental illness and personality, character, choices, life events, etc. can be very fuzzy, but there is still a line. I’m a social person and I love people and parties. This is my personality. Sometimes hypomania can make people very social. Hypomania isn’t a personality type, though, hypomania is a medical condition. Can you see how it gets confusing to distinguish between the two? It helps that I’ve met many types of people with bipolar disorder. We are all different, but our symptoms are the same. This helps me see my condition as a condition, not as my personality or my character.
Ultimately, acceptance is a choice and I choose to accept my diagnosis of Bipolar 2. I go lawyer on myself about it. I say, “Two separate psychiatrists diagnosed me with this condition. My dad was bipolar, and there is a strong genetic component involved. I’ve experienced both depression and hypomania, which is all that is required for a diagnosis. The evidence that I have bipolar disorder is compelling. Therefore, I choose to accept this diagnosis.” Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.
While acceptance is very humbling and forces a re-orienting of one’s reality, it’s also very liberating. Finally, I don’t feel alone in trying to untangle the knots in my brain. Finally, I have a name for why I always felt so different. Finally, I am getting the proper treatment. Finally, I am taking proper care of myself. As a result, I feel so much better now! I’m more at peace and content than I’ve been in years.
I didn’t choose to have bipolar disorder, but I do choose to accept the diagnosis, and doing so is turning out to be one of the most empowering, enlightening experiences of my life. There’s something very liberating about facing your worst possible fear and living through it. We don’t choose our struggles, but we do choose how to respond, and who knows- you may even come out stronger on the other side.