How often do you get the question; “what are you like when you’re not on pills?” or “what were you like before you were diagnosed?” Ugh. If I could slap someone in the face every time I got one of these questions, my hand would have taken to a permanent red hue. A few days ago one of my dear friends had a sincere question for me, it was about her bipolar aunt. In short, this aunt is bipolar type 1, but has been stable for so long that she is only on a maintenance dose of lithium for a few years now. Then she decided to stop taking that as well. Not long after, a manic episode knocked at the door. It started with improper comments at work and escalated from there, from what I can gather, her impulsivity also got the best of her. Her family’s response was that she should pray about the impulsivity because it is not from God (oh no you didn’t just say that!) and that she should go to her psychiatrist and get on her meds again as soon as possible (okay that is a sensible response).
The question my friend asked was along the following lines (I cannot remember the exact words, I never can): Is it right to say that her impulsivity is ungodly, and shouldn’t her family just allow her to be herself, bipolar and all? Isn’t the meds stealing from who she really is and changing her into something she is not? Sho, loaded question on an empty stomach…
Luckily I’ve had similar questions before and I have grappled with the concept of who am I really? When the meds and bipolar is stripped away, what will remain? The answer is, I do not know, I don’t think I can ever know and here is why:
We are born with many personality traits and predispositions, but we only start becoming a ‘self’ in our late teens and twenties (some people never become a ‘self’ and stay a chameleon adapting their personalities to what suits the situation – not healthy) This time period is not set in stone, it is just my experience when I see the people around me. Thing is, the onset age for BD is usually around the same time, interrupting this journey of self discovery. That is why many bipolars don’t know who they are without the bipolar. Secondly, the meds and all their T&C’s also influence every part of us, including personality and emotional state. Now not all bipolars are thankful for the ‘mood regulation’ that comes with taking meds, but they know the damage that they can inflict if they do not control themselves (or rather have themselves controlled by the meds). What must be kept in mind is that having a mood at level 10/10 is not the real you either, it is the bipolar disorder amplifying what would have been a 7/10. So it is foolish to say that the unmedicated version of you is the real you, the unmedicated version of you is simply put, the bipolar-controlled version of you.
So if the true you is not the unmedicated you or the prediagnosis-you. Then who are you? Now before you break down in tears at the thought that there is no ‘pure’ uninfluenced version of you, to try to return to, I think I know what you can strive to. In order to apply my suggested answer to the ‘who am I really?’ question, the following statement needs to be accepted: You are who you are. Wow, how utterly deep whilst sounding very stupid at the same time! Let me explain. As a human being you are made up of body, soul and spirit. The bipolar has its tent camped in the soul and body, and the meds in the body. Can you separate them, burn down their tents without damaging the soul and body? No. So the next option is to accept them in to who you are. Yes sometimes our meds turn us into zombies (that doesn’t have to be the case for most bipolars btw, there are alternative meds who don’t do that to you). Zombie-mode is maybe the one exception I would allow in terms of my “accept the meds as part of who you are” proposal. But for the biggest part, the meds now adds to what makes you who you are. As for the bipolar, I’d say the same, True you did not get a chance to be completely formed pre-diagnosis, therefore it is hard to cut it out of your identity. It is like a cancer that is interwoven in between your organs, trying to remove it will kill you. To summarize, You are who you are, meds and bipolar included. But…
This statement should relieve some pressure but it shouldn’t stop you from walking onward on this journey. You will find that as your body gets used to the meds and as you become better (less episodes, less often) you will evolve, you will change. The amount of pressure you can handle will increase, the volume you like your music played at might change. You might discover (or even rediscover) your creative side or the secret mathematician hiding in you. What I’m trying to say is that who you are is not set in stone, there is no ‘real’ version of you that you should lose sleep over. Even normal people aren’t who they are, circumstances shape them as well.
When I was originally diagnosed, I lost all my ability to write and I only wanted to eat carbs. Science-stuffs overwhelmed me and I hated driving. 5 years on and all of that has changed. I was me then, I’m me now.
I conclude; accept yourself as you are right now, limitations, strengths, likes and dislikes, everything! And then, be open to this version of you changing as your meds, bipolar and circumstances change. This view of things helped my friend a lot, I hope it helps you too. Remember I love comments, whether you agree or disagree with me.