Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Bipolar Disorder

How Much Is Me, and How Much Is My Bipolar Disorder?

A Personal Perspective: Sometimes it’s a symptom, but sometimes it’s just life.

Key points

  • With bipolar disorder, it’s important to always be vigilant about one's moods.
  • Questioning whether one's feelings are appropriate is a necessary part of having bipolar disorder.
  • A diagnosis does not have to define someone, but it can be incorporated into their identity.

I recently received an email from one of my readers, who has just been diagnosed as bipolar. She is unhappy about the diagnosis, she says, because it makes her feel like she is nothing more than “a collection of symptoms.” She worries that she no longer has an identity because she doesn’t know how to differentiate between herself and the illness. How much is simply who she is, and how much is her bipolar disorder?

I get it. I’ve struggled with that same dilemma, and I know many other people have, too. It’s very hard sometimes to figure out whether my moods are actually bipolar symptoms. Take this morning: I was scrambling some eggs while listening to music when a song I like (“Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello) came on. I started to dance and sing along with a wooden spoon as my would-be mic. In tribute to the lyrics, I pumped my arms up over my head and spun around and around until I was dizzy.

A truck went by my kitchen window, and the driver saw me gyrating alone in my kitchen. He grinned and honked. I stopped, shame-faced, because I felt I’d been caught doing something wrong. Oh, no—was I feeling too happy for no apparent good reason? Was it simply because I like Elvis Costello, or was it a precursor to manic euphoria? Yikes! Should I call my doctor?

The same thing happens to me with sadness. During the recent spate of storms in Southern California, several trees on my hillside toppled. The rains seem to be over now, but I can’t stop mourning the loss of those trees. Nobody was hurt, my house is intact, and there’s no legitimate reason for me to still be so sad. Nevertheless, I feel an ache in my heart that wasn’t there before. Is it possible I’ve gone over to the dark side and invited depression in?

When is it mental illness, and when is it just life?

That’s one of the biggest challenges of being bipolar: You always have to be on guard, cross-examining your feelings to make sure you’re not missing something that really ought to be medicated. But I know now—a knowledge gleaned from many years of experience—not to let suspect symptoms manifest for too long. I can do terrible things to my life when I’m full-blown manic, like spending literally all my money or inviting total strangers into my bed. It’s better to catch myself on the upswing before I wreck my finances or my relationships again. Similarly, if I allow depression to fester, I know from past history that I’m likely to become suicidal, and I may even act on that despair. A call to my psychiatrist and a tweak of my meds is a far safer alternative.

Some people have told me I’m overreacting and that my acute self-awareness is actually an unhealthy self-absorption. I’d rather not have to prove them wrong, so I’ve learned to ignore that criticism. But it’s taken me years to get to this point—years of questioning whether I’m being appropriately cautious or whether I’m just a covert narcissist who thinks too much about her own feelings. Bipolar disorder is hard enough without having to defend your proactive behavior to manage it.

As for discerning one’s identity apart from the illness, that can be problematic, too. Even for people without bipolar disorder, identity can be a shape-shifter, a trickster that’s difficult to catch. For me, it’s constantly evolving—and that makes it hard to pin down precisely where I start and my illness ends. But I don’t feel defined by my diagnosis any more than I feel defined by my love of Star Trek or my passion for Sherlock Holmes. When people call me a Trekkie or a Sherlockian, I know they don’t mean that’s all I am. Why should being bipolar be any different?

So to my reader who just got diagnosed, I want to say, relax. Living with the illness gets easier as time goes by. Once you learn what your cycles typically look like, you will begin to feel more at home in your body and mind. The person you were before you heard “You have bipolar disorder” still exists. She may just be hiding out among your symptoms, like a wildflower in a field of grass.

More from Terri Cheney
More from Psychology Today