photos courtesy of Carrie Cantwell
Be yourself. That’s a pretty universal piece of advice. Whether you’re applying for a job or going on a first date, it’s something we’ve all heard at one time or another. When everyone can see the real you, the relationships you build are authentic. But because I have bipolar disorder, I have a hard time even knowing who “the real me” is. Am I the bubbly, energetic go-getter who’s the life of the party? Am I the sensitive, introspective person who sometimes cries too often? Or are those behaviors expressions of my bipolar disorder?
Bipolar is a mood disorder. People struggling with this illness may just seem like they’re in a good or bad mood. They may look like naturally sociable, sad or angry people to everyone around them. However, in people with bipolar, what appears to be their disposition is often a brain chemical imbalance lurking underneath. Because the symptoms can masquerade as personality traits, it’s often difficult for people with the illness, and their loved ones, to discern whether someone has bipolar disorder or if they’re just naturally “that way.”
I’ve always been outgoing. My first word wasn’t “Mama” or “Dada”—it was “hi.” As soon as I could talk, I said “hi” to everyone I met. I was full of hyperactive energy and had a hard time sitting still. My elementary school teachers often sent me to the principal’s office because I talked too much in class. In high school, I filled my schedule with extra-curricular activities and social events, with barely enough time to do homework. College was no different. Not only did I have a full load of classes and a job, I also threw myself into activist groups and went to parties every night of the week. I was constantly making new friends, and I slept with too many people to count. Always on-the-go, I’d jump from one activity to the next with no downtime to reflect or relax.
All this may sound like I’m just a naturally gregarious person. But it also describes someone who’s hypomanic. In my twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Was this bipolar or was this me? For those of us with this illness, second-guessing your true nature comes with the territory. I don’t always recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. When I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator at twenty-three, I came out on the extreme end of ENFJ, with an emphasis on the big “E” for extrovert. Does the big “E” mean I’m really an extrovert, or is that hypomania? Hypomania can be subtle. It can look like I’m just someone with a lot of friends who loves to participate in social activities. But that’s also what an extrovert is. Sometimes it’s difficult to detangle my true self from all these labels.
I love the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The message I took away from the movie is this: if you’re given the chance to remove painful memories, it’s better to keep them, because they determine your identity. Someone once asked me if I could get rid of my bipolar disorder, would I? My answer was no. No matter how I’ve gotten to where I am now—whether it’s a result of my bipolar or my personality—it’s my past that’s made me who I’m proud to be today. Does that mean I ignore my illness and don’t take care of myself? Of course not. I recognize that I have a lifelong mood disorder that needs ongoing care, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. I take my medication; visit the doctor regularly; get enough sleep, food and exercise; and try to keep things in perspective. I surround myself with a strong support network of friends and family who can tell me if they see me start to go off the rails. I try not to focus on labels or worry about which aspects of my behavior are my personality or the illness. Whatever the parts are that make up the whole of who I am, I like myself, and that’s what really matters.
Carrie Cantwell blogs about bipolar at darknessandlight.org. She is currently writing and editing a memoir titled Daddy Issues: A Memoir.
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