Language can powerfully influence self-definition, revelation, and healing. The way we describe ourselves and our condition speaks volumes about our outlook and our outcomes. I was diagnosed decades ago with bipolar disorder, still adhere to treatment, and still suffer mood changes. Yet I strongly maintain that I am not bipolar.
For years I agreed with doctors and other healing professionals with the phrase, “I am mentally ill.” After all, I had all the symptoms, I was terribly socially inhibited, I destroyed relationships and finances during manic episodes, and eventually, after much trial and error, I responded to treatment. Diagnosis correct, hence, “I am mentally ill.”
But that phrase always bothered me.
Place an object after a noun and the verb to be and the result is identity. I’m comfortable with the fact that I am a man, I am 55 years old, and I am short. But maintaining that I am a disease always struck me as damaging.
How could I recover from a condition, how could I lose it, if I was it?
It struck me that bipolar is not what I am, but instead something I have. You see, no one says I am hypertension or I am cancer. Why not? Because that’s not who they are. The diseases are something they have. What damage was I doing to myself by identifying with the idea that I am bipolar?
So I changed the language I used to describe myself. I maintained not that “I am mentally ill,” but instead that “I have a mental illness.” It caused a sea change in my treatment and my recovery.
Suddenly I was not a damaged person. I simply had a medical condition like any other, and it could be treated and I could manage it, maybe even remove its influence from my life.
No longer would I allow anyone, not doctors, not family, not anyone, to say that I was bipolar. I insisted on, “you have bipolar disorder.” I’m not splitting hairs here. The difference is huge, and I encourage you to adopt this language in describing yourself and your own condition. I can guarantee that you will change your relationship to the challenges that mental illness brings to your life.
If you are something, well, that’s who you are. But if you have something you can get over it, or minimize it, or manage it. You can stand apart from it. You alone are complete. The things you have are influential, yes, but malleable.
I believe that if we insist on the verbiage that we have a mental illness, instead of that we are mentally ill, we can focus more on positive treatment and even defeat the stigma surrounding our challenges.
The stigma against mental illness is fueled by less enlightened minds clinging to the notion that something is wrong with us, instead of realizing that we have a disorder that can be treated and lived with successfully.
Like hypertension and cancer, mental illness is just a medical condition that some people have. It can be treated and the result can be positive. No need for discrimination or stigma against the sick.
It concerns me that today I see young people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder identifying with the disease and fully incorporating it into their self-image.
Yes, it is necessary to accept the disorder and yes it is true that beneficial things can come of one’s experience with mental illness. But all mental illness remains challenging to others and can lead to maladaptive behavior. Society demands some basic behaviors from each of us, and we must be able to be independent and self-supporting. If identifying with a disease prevents that, the identity should be questioned.
Again, I think it’s beneficial to say you have a mental illness. All the learning and love can still follow. You just won’t limit yourself by succumbing to the self-definition that you are ill, or dangerously different, or damaged in any way.
The language we use can shine a tremendous light on whom we think we are. And whom we think we are, and how that person is independent of the things doctors tell us we have, is a full, productive, and healing, compassionate person.
So I can comfortably say, “I have bipolar disorder.”