Don’t let mental illness define you

For many years I refused to accept my diagnosis of bipolar disorder.  I was challenged by a great deal of self-stigma…I blamed myself for my symptoms, I felt guilty for having something wrong. And by no means did I want to be a part of a group that was looked down upon in our society.  I simply did not want to have to deal with my illness, so denying it seemed like I could make it go away.

Like any other serious illness my bipolar disorder just got worse without treatment.  It escalated to the point where I found myself in places that I could never imagine I could end up.  I pushed people away from me, left a successful career in the dust, and became so depressed I could not get out of bed.

Fast forward several years and I am now successfully treated with a proper combination of medications and have moved forward and rebuilt my life.  

But there was a period of time when all I could think about was bipolar disorder.  I dreaded taking the medications because it made me feel “less than” everyone else.  In some ways I felt as if I was damaged.  I was completely devoid of any confidence and my self-esteem was at my all time low.  I measured everything I did through the lens of bipolar disorder and forgot about the whole person that I am.

I have come a long way since then but was struck this evening by my 10 year old nephews awe with how many states I had traveled too.  He was putting together a map of the U.S. And ask me to tell him where I had traveled. When he put the map together leaving out 7 states he said to me, “Look at all the places you have been!”  In that moment he was in awe of me.

It struck me that I needed to remind myself that there is so much more to my story than struggling with a mental illness. It doesn’t even have anything to do with how much I have traveled but more importantly that I had forgotten those experiences contributed a great deal to the person I have become.  

More than anything there have been times when I have wallowed at times in much self-pity thinking my life was cheated because of bipolar disorder when the real focus should be on my experiences in spite of it.

The reasons for my extensive travel are many and they actually have sculpted in a large part my journey in life.  Bipolar disorder contributed to a few of my wondering experiments to strange places but for the most part my adventurous spirit took me down the path of exploration.

I think it is tempting to become so consumed with fighting and managing an illness that we sometimes forget who we were, who we are and who we are becoming.  But one thing I have learned is to make certain I am not identifying myself through only one lens.

Each of us who live with a mental illness are far bigger than a diagnosis.  We are mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers.  We are someone’s child.  We are employees and friends and full of life.

Remember all of who you are and focus on the whole picture that makes up your experiences not just the struggles and the pain, but the joy and happiness that makes you a unique individual.  

It can be an adjustment to think this way, but it is critically important.  You are more than your illness-way more.  And life starts feeling better when you recognize that fact.

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