One of the hardest questions about bipolar is the following: Is bipolar an integral part of who I am? Would I be the same person as I am today if I hadn’t had bipolar? If I took away the bipolar would I suddenly change? I am sure lots of people have strong opinions on these kinds of questions. So let me look at what I think are some of the arguments surrounding the idea that bipolar is an integral part of personality.
I guess one of the main reasons that people think bipolar is an integral part of who they are is that they can’t imagine who they would be if they didn’t have bipolar. Bipolar has hugely affected their lives. If your experiences are constantly seen through the bipolar lens of extreme mood, it is hard to imagine what your experiences would have been like without bipolar. So for example, because I have seen myself go through extreme highs and lows, I view myself as a very changeable, emotional, colourful and vulnerable person. If someone asked me to describe myself, these are some of the traits I would assign myself. And they are bipolar traits. If my personality has bipolar traits, then how can I say what I would be like without them? If I no longer had bipolar, would these traits suddenly disappear and make me in to a different person?
In addition, bipolar doesn’t just affect mood. It affects your ability to work, your ability to socialise and your relationships. It is because bipolar affects your ability to function in these ways that it can be hard to imagine how things could have been different. For example, it is hard for me to imagine my relationship with my parents without me having bipolar. If I didn’t have bipolar I wouldn’t be so dependent upon them and perhaps we would have a very different kind of bond. They would view me in a different way and perhaps they would view my personality differently.
As bipolar is a mental illness, it is more difficult to see it as a physical illness akin to a broken leg, a failing liver or a weak heart. The brain is a physical thing but it is a different kind of organ to these others: it is responsible for your emotions, moods and personality. Therefore, if you have an illness that affects your brain it becomes harder to separate out the illness from your personality. Especially when bipolar, in particular, affects the way you personally respond in everyday situations.
These are some of the arguments made to support the idea that bipolar forms an integral part of your personality. I think that it is quite easy to defend the view that having bipolar can change, to some degree, who you are. I have become much more anxious, sensitive, stressed and moody (obviously!) since having bipolar. I am also more empathetic to other people and what they are going through, as I know what extreme distress feels like. When I am manic I also become highly focused and driven and so am able to achieve a lot more in short bursts. I definitely think that having bipolar has affected who I am today.
However, this does not mean that I think that I would suddenly change dramatically if I was ‘cured’ of my bipolar. I recognise that I have a basic personality which is drastically different to other people with bipolar. We may share the same traits of non-reactive moodiness, anxiety, vulnerability and (arguably) creativity but there are many other traits which we may not share. I have basic personality traits such as being disorganised, shy, open, competitive, introverted, trusting, non-confrontational, gullible and dippy. These traits are separate from my bipolar. They are there when I am both sick and well and would still be there if I was ‘cured’ of bipolar. I didn’t always have bipolar. It manifested in my late teen years and so I remember what it was like not to be sick. I remember having a personality pre-bipolar, not so unlike the one I have today.
I think that bipolar does change who I am to a degree but I do not think that it completely defines my personality. It affects my thoughts every day, the way I feel about the world and myself. It affects my relationships and my energy levels. It affects my confidence and the way I relate to others. However, I am more than just someone with bipolar. I have a whole host of attributes (and probably an equal number of vices!). It may have changed who I am but I’m still basically me. I am more than just a diagnosis.
Even though bipolar has affected who I am today, I hope it doesn’t continue to affect me in the future. I still hope to be ‘cured’ of bipolar if that is possible.I am aware that not everyone with bipolar feels the same. Bipolar affects people differently and people will have different perceptions of how bipolar affects their personality and their quality of life.