The first time my doctor told me that she thought I had bipolar disorder I almost choked on my Tim Tam (sneakily purchased from the local supermarket…I can assure you the public health system does not provide such wonderful chocolate snacks). “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I spluttered. “I have been horribly depressed for months…I FINALLY feel good, and I’ve got a disorder?!”
Of course I was in the midst of a manic episode at that moment…but we’ll get to that some other time 😉
The point is, I had a fairly strong and ignorant idea as to what bipolar disorder was, and was of the utmost confidence that I certainly didn’t fit that category, thank you very much. bipolar disorder, to me, conjured images of really crazy people. Take the word ‘manic’ add a letter and you get ‘maniac’. Coincidence? I think not. Postnatal depression, I thought, well that’s one thing. But bipolar? Woah man…let’s not get carried away!
What is interesting is that I am by no means uneducated in terms of clinical psychological knowledge. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, have volunteered as a telephone counsellor, and have spent time with many individuals who live with what society describes as a ‘mental illness’. Logically, I knew that all psychological distress has a place on a continuum and there are shades of grey. Yet when I was faced with a potential diagnosis all I saw was black or white: crazy or sane. And I didn’t want to be the crazy one.
When my mania started to ease I finally started to think seriously about my potential diagnosis. My doctor took care to take time to describe the symptoms, explain why she suspected I had the disorder, and encouraged me to ask as many questions as I pleased. One day I decided to conduct my own research on the matter. I read website after website, page after page of symptoms and clinical descriptions, determined to find something that didn’t fit. Something I could gleefully take back to my doctor to prove her wrong. But at the end of it all I just sighed and sat back in my chair.
“Oh crap.” I said out loud to myself. “I think I’ve got bipolar”.
One evening at the hospital I voiced my concerns to Hubster. “Do you still love me….even if I’ve got bipolar.”
Hubster barely looked up. “Course I do” he said, as sure as if I had asked him if he likes Star Wars.
“But I’m….” I struggled to find a word, “INSANE!” I spluttered.
“You’re not insane” Hubster said, stroking my hair. “You’re going through a hard time. And I’m here…for better or worse, in sickness or in health, remember?”. I breathed a sigh of relief. “There is one thing though…” Hubster said “I can’t call you my Chi Bear anymore.”
I looked at him, startled. Chi Bear was his nickname for me.
“Why not?!” I asked.
“Because I will have to call you my Bipolar Bear now!” We both collapsed into giggles. It was the first time we had joked about my illness. Now, of course, we’ve graduated to fully fledged piss taking where any mention of maniacs or arctic dwelling bears is sure to set us off.
It was then that I realised that I was still me, I hadn’t changed. Bipolar had been with me all along but it just didn’t have a name. A diagnosis is simply a word. A term to describe a collection of symptoms that I happened to have. A tool for categorizing individuals such to predict their likely response to various treatment protocols. “We diagnose” my doctor had told me, “not to label, but because it’s easier to treat someone if we know what we are dealing with, and what usually works for people with similar symptoms”.
Now I feel that bipolar disorder is merely an aspect of my life. I no longer feel shame in what I have experienced, and feel comfortable to talk about my story to those who ask. I feel relief that there is an explanation for the experiences I have had, and that I have access to a treatment which is currently working. I feel grateful for the lessons I have learned throughout this experience, and for the strength I now feel I posses. But I won’t ever let it define me. I’m not bipolar. I’m Rachael, and I have bipolar disorder.