I’m a happy person. In fact, I’ve been told that I am just about the happiest damned person you’ll ever meet. It’s more common for a friend to notice me in ecstasy than in despair, which is why so many people find it a shock when I tell them that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
At the time I was diagnosed, I was being swallowed by depression. I was sleeping days away, staying up all night, and breaking down into tears whenever I stopped to take a breath. I was making irrational decisions about my education and friendships, drinking too much, behaving impulsively, and spiraling into the clichéd-but-all-too-real abyss that depression proffers.
At first, my diagnosis was a relief. It meant help. It meant I wasn’t losing my mind. It meant things were going to get better – and they did. Therapy and medication cleared the dark clouds that had smothered my sunny disposition, and I was myself again. The smile was back on my face, the spring back in my step. However, though I seemed fine and was certainly reaching a much more balanced chemical state, I was coming to grips with this new part of my identity.
It might not sound like a huge deal, but when you’ve spent your entire life living in the shadow of a mood-altering illness you didn’t even know you had, it can alter your perspective significantly. I’d always chalked my bouts of melancholy and euphoria up to my intense personality. Over the years, I’d come to embrace it. I fancied myself someone who was deeply sensitive, wildly fun, both confident and insecure, and energetic to a fault. This persona had dragged me through untenable highs and crashing lows, but up until that year of my diagnosis, I’d never given it too much thought.
Upon receiving my diagnosis, however, I began to question everything. Was I sad because I had a reason to be sad or was it just those gaps in my serotonin? Was I happy because I was happy or was it a sign of an impending bout of mania?
Bipolar disorder is a fickle illness to deal with because it can be difficult to distinguish where depression ends and mania begins. For me, it was extremely hard to accept this; in recognizing my illness, I had to acknowledge that my moods (specifically the joyous ones) might not be truly organic. Rather, it could all just be a side effect of this dysfunction with my brain. Even worse? In order to dispel my depression, I might lose part of that euphoria I so loved about myself.
The next few years brought different rounds of medications, new doctors, and a growing library of self-help books. Those years also brought about the determination of my major, the building of life-giving friendships, and my personal growth as an adult. Though my moods were the same, albeit less extreme than that first horrible year, I continued to struggle with where my bipolar disorder ended and my true self began.
It’s a difficult question to answer, and it’s one that I may never be sure of. But with the help of loved ones, I’ve come to realize that this question is ultimately irrelevant. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying that, with the complications of diagnosis and medication, I may not be authentically me; but at the end of the day, who else could I be? While it’s true that I rely on medication, I’m still the person I’ve always been. I still cry over a holiday commercial or hug someone too tightly when they tell me good news about themselves. I’m just as likely to be found meditating on a sad book than I am to be downright beaming over the sound of someone else’s laughter. The difference between these occurrences and those that happened pre-diagnosis is that this is what I choose. I am the way I am not because of my illness but because of my spirit.
One of Dr. Seuss’ most well known quotes is, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” It’s been a journey (admittedly one that is ongoing) to accept the reality of my diagnosis and how it impacts the person I am. However, this simple reminder is one that pushes me to embrace the qualities that make me who I am rather than question their origins. I am sad. I am happy. I am myself. At the end of the day, bipolar disorder or not, that’s all there is and that’s all that matters.