I have bipolar.
I am bipolar.
For me, those two sentences say two different things. I would always say that “I have bipolar” whereas many, with equally valid reasoning, would be fine with saying “I am bipolar”. Here, I look at both these choices, not to dictate how people should or shouldn’t describe their experience of their own conditions, but to explore what each says about what it means to experience a mental health issue.
A friend of mine, who is autistic, has explained to me that, while he wouldn’t mind being called “a person with depression” (as opposed to “a depressive”) he prefers to refer to himself as “autistic” rather than as “a person who has autism”. This is because he feels that, while depression is a condition that may fluctuate and change, autism is a constant. It is essential to how he views and interacts with the world.
Like his depression, my bipolar fluctuates. Not just between highs and lows, but through periods of stability. The reason I say I “have” rather than “am” bipolar is largely due to not wanting to be defined by an illness. You can’t be Chrons’ disease, or IBS or even flu, so why should you be bipolar? Why should you be anything at all? It boils down to which things affect my world view, and which don’t. Does an illness affect who you are? In some ways no. But in some ways yes, as I’ll describe below.
In part it’s a problem of language. I am mixed race, am a lesbian, am a woman, am a writer. Are those things essential to my experience of the world? Sure, each of these things has affected my experience of the world, but is any of them essential? You could argue either way. Yet it’s much harder to say “I have a mixed heritage”, “I have a sole attraction to women”, “I have a female gender identification” or simply “I write”. Maybe claiming that I have, rather than am, bipolar is more a matter of semantics.
I don’t think so.
I like to think of myself as having certain qualities, rather than as being defined by them, and bipolar is one. Bipolar is something that has caused me hurt, and loss, and distress and I would rather, in an ideal world, that it not be integral to who I am as a person (note, that doesn’t mean I would rather not have/ be bipolar). I would prefer not to be defined by some of the worst moments of my life and for me, saying that I “am” bipolar suggests that I must be defined by the illness and, therefore, of the many ways in which it has affected my life.
If I am bipolar, to me that suggests that bipolar is something essential to me, that it has a constant and long-lasting effect on my world-view and on my way of being in the world. Does it?
I have to say that in some ways it does. I have experienced mental health difficulties from a very young age. Whether inside or outside of an episode, I am ever-vigilant of my own mood. Aside from the introspective element, does bipolar- when under control- affect my way of seeing/ being in the world?
I think that, like my ethnicity and gender and sexuality, bipolar has informed my way of understanding the world. It has also shaped the way in which the world has affected me. There are forms of discrimination and misunderstanding that I would not have experienced has I not been (or had) gay, mixed race, female, bipolar. Experiences shape perception. At some point the two become intertwined and your experience in the world becomes your experience of the world. For my autistic friend, autism has always shaped both his perception of the world and his interactions and experiences within it, as my bipolar has for me.
Although I don’t think I am limited to the confines of an illness, I do need to recognize that it is in some ways integral to my experiences, behaviors and traits. As such, I am learning to feel more comfortable with people saying that I am rather than have bipolar because I can’t always tell where I end and it begins… and that isn’t always a bad thing.
What do you think?
By and © 2015, Becky Bee, All Rights Reserved
Becky Bee is a coffee-loving, running-inspired writer living in London. She keeps a blog at www.balfourthrb.wordpress.com, covering all manner of issues around mental health, sexuality and other issues. She is also writing a novel, a sort of lesbian Bridget Jones. When not writing or running, she spends her time trying unsuccessfully to beat her girlfriend at Scrabble.
You can find her blog at: www.balfourthrb.wordpress.com