“You are Not Your Illness”

(reposted from September 2015)

“You are not your illness.”

Any doctor, clinician, therapist, and social worker worth their salt will at some point make this statement to you as a mental health patient.  You are a person, not “a bipolar”, or “a schizophrenic” or even “a borderline personality”.  It’s a major tenet of modern medical treatment.

But it doesn’t feel true to you.  You accidentally miss one of your meds and immediately you’re sucked into a vortex of moods, symptoms, or other manifestations of your illness.  You start to wonder.  Are you a personality?  Or is what you think of as “you” simply a balance of finely tuned chemicals?  And what happens to you when those chemicals get out of whack?

I felt this way for years.  I thought there was no other way for me to live except in constant awareness of my illness, which happens to be bipolar disorder.  So many aspects of my personality—such as my drive to succeed, my ability to multitask, my sometimes-outgoing/sometime-introvertedness—turned out to by symptoms of my illness.  I thought of everything that made me “me” in terms of how it related to my illness.

But then I decided that if God wanted me to be bipolar, so be it.  I started writing about my bipolar life.  I started a bipolar blog, Eventually the writings turned into a full manuscript.  I signed up for NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, in Mississippi so I could be a part of their speaker’s bureau, NAMI In Our Own Voice.  I went to meetings and events.  I was trained as a speaker.  I did a radio show, then a magazine article talking about my bipolar life.

All of it was geared to give people hope that if they were suffering from bipolar disorder, God can give them a semblance of a normal life.  I felt like I was doing all the right things—working, being a mom, being a wife, and doing it the best I could given the limitations I tended to live under.

Then I had a bomb dropped on me my last psychiatrist’s appointment.  He said my symptoms were “in remission with medication”.

And my immediate reaction was fear.  Not “You mean I’m cured?” but “What does that mean?”

He said that I seemed to be doing so well for so long that he didn’t see any need for me to change medication or limit my activities at school, which I was about to start in three weeks.  He said “Those aren’t words we hear often around here.”

I spent much of the next week in shock.  Did he mean I wasn’t bipolar anymore?  What about my anxiety about going to the grocery store by myself?  What about my tendencies to flirt with men?  What about my constant sleepiness, which I was fighting every day by drinking two can Cokes morning and afternoon?

I had gone from a person dealing well with a disabling condition to someone who didn’t feel equipped to face life’s ordinary challenges.  And I realized I had let my illness define me.

So now I am constructing another life.  I am a student at the Mississippi University for Women in the Master’s of Fine Arts program in creative writing.  I will write about my life with bipolar disorder, because remission does not mean I am cured of what has happened to me in the past.  But I will write about other things as well, because I am not defined by my illness.  I am Julie Whitehead, and that is all I need to be.

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