The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Am I My Diagnosis?

My Struggle Against the Straightjacket of Mental Illness Labels

The savagery of the Internet never fails to astonish me.  "You're an idiot and I hope you never publish another book," an anonymous reader emailed me recently.  He or she was furious that I had chosen to write, "I am bipolar" as opposed to "I have bipolar disorder."  Okay, already.  I get the point:  the illness should not define you.

But it does, to an extent.  I go up, I go down, I ricochet from extreme to extreme.  For me, the diagnosis has always felt justified.  That's why I've never fought it.  To the contrary, I embraced it from the start.  After thirty-four years of not knowing what on earth was wrong with me, I felt lucky at last to have found words that captured my condition.  It meant I could research the hell out of them and feel more assured by my knowledge.  It meant that certain treatments would apply, and others weren't appropriate.  It narrowed the lens, and brought the thrilling illusion of certainty to an otherwise hopelessly chaotic world.

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But lately I've found myself growing impatient with my old definitions.  Did that crank on the Internet hit a sore spot?  Is a diagnosis really all that I am?  It's been seventeen years since I was first called bipolar—high time, I think, to check in:  Am I still on comfortable terms with that label, or is it a straightjacket that no longer fits?

Recently, I was interviewed by the producer of an upcoming documentary about bipolar disorder.  He was a lovely man and great fun to talk to, but I found myself squirming a bit whenever he brought up the subject of mania.  He, like so many other people I've met—hundreds of them over the past five years since my first book "Manic" came out—seemed fascinated by the topic.  What does mania feel like, he asked.  What did you do the last time you were manic?  What happened next?  And then?

He didn't say this, but I could intuit his real question:  Tell me what it's really like, so I can feel it, too.

Mania doesn't thrill me anymore; it just makes me irritable.  It's certainly not the exuberant joy ride many people seem to think it is.  It's a bother and an intrusion into my otherwise fairly peaceful life.  I was manic just a few weeks ago in Manhattan—not for long, but long enough for me to spend all my money, every last cent, without a thought for tomorrow—leaving me stranded in the middle of an unfamiliar and none-too-friendly city.  Then I picked a quarrel with the person who showed up to rescue me, ruining what might have otherwise been a terrific night on the town. 

I caught a glimpse of myself in a ladies' room mirror that evening.  Straggle-haired and wild-eyed, I looked like a banshee in a little black dress.  That's not what I would choose to be, if the choice were mine to make.

I've got thirteen years of sobriety to my credit.  Maybe that's the problem.  Maybe I've gotten too sober to be really, truly manic—because when you're really, truly manic, repercussions never enter your mind.  But when you're sober, the very first thing you do is judge the hangover potential of any given situation.  So the glamour of wild dares and reckless sex and dangerous encounters with strangers eludes me nowadays.  I'd rather be cozy and safe at home.  I'd rather wake up and remember last night and the night before, and enough nights before that so I can actually feel I'm in charge of a life.  One that doesn't make me cringe.

And yet . . . bad as she is, I'd rather be that manic banshee in the little black dress than the ghoul that haunts my house when I'm depressed.  There's no love lost whatsoever between depression and me.  I don't want to know it, write about it, embrace it, define it, fight it, think about it, or fear it.  It's occupied my mind for as long as I can remember, and probably for several lives before that. 

I think I've paid sufficient homage to the darkness by now.  I have no romantic notions left.  I don't believe I have to suffer to write, or that suicide is a noble calling.  I see depression for what it is:  a beast that wants to rip out my marrow.  What a meal I've given it, all these years.  Get thee behind me, beast.

Here’s the truth:  I don't want to identify myself as either manic or depressed.  I want to be able to say what I'm feeling, but these clinical terms are like bold black graffiti—they deface whatever originally lay beneath them.  Was there ever a time when I wasn't bipolar?  It's not that I don't remember my life before I was diagnosed.  It's just that so little of it made any sense.  Without the clinical jargon, I would hardly know how to describe it.

So who am I, if not bipolar?

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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