Flickr has a group called “Bipolar Photographers” of which I am a proud and prolific member. The other day, I tweeted the name and the url of the group. Another person reteeted my announcement but “corrected” it: “Photographers Living with Bipolar Disorder”.
Two weeks before, I was at a Mental Health First Aid group. One of the participants called herself “bipolar”. The presenter stopped the introductions and shamed her. Was this supportive?
Now I think these interventions are plain rude. The owner named the group what he named it. It is not for anyone else to change that title. Modeling may be appropriate — I call myself a person living with bipolar disorder when we introduce ourselves in group — but correcting someone — especially in a public place — smacks of grandiosity and arrogance.
My long term readers know how I feel about such heavy-handedness. The point, they argue, is that we are not our disease. We don’t say that a diabetic is diabetes or a cancer patient is cancer the reasoning goes. “Who’s implying that?” I ask. Bipolar in this usage is like diabetic or schizophrenic or cancer as in cancer patient (we’re not allowed to call ourselves bipolar patients though) — an adjective just like it is in the name of the condition. (When you call it bipolar, I hold, you are not using the proper name for the disease.) People who say that they are bipolar are simply recognizing that they have the disease just like people who say their dog is brown are acknowledging its color.
I’ve written about these activists before. Following the lead of their therapists, they claim that this labeling is bad for us. Where does this come from? It smacks of neuro-linguistic programming to me — a discredited therapy. Promulgators appear to believe that by changing the way we refer to ourselves, we will make ourselves less sick. Instead of being a bipolar person, we are to refer to ourselves as a “person living with bipolar”. The idea is that we will change the way we think about ourselves.
Last year, an article by a member of Mad Pride in Friends Journal argued that stigma came from diagnoses. If it weren’t for psychiatrists putting labels on us, we wouldn’t be discriminated against went the argument. I remember that people who had our conditions felt the thorns of stigma well before psychiatrists arrived on the scene. They called us “fools”, for one thing, and “lunatics” for another — far worse terms in my opinion than “bipolar”.
The trouble with these two similar ideas is that brain doesn’t work that way. I think we reach for labels that fit our sense of who we are rather than let them define us. Many of us proudly call ourselves bipolar as a rebuttal to stigma and a point of pride much as the Religious Society of Friends adopted the perjorative “Quaker” or Marines adopted “Jarhead”. They imbue these terms with dignity and humor which robs them of their power to insult. People who call themselves bipolar are, at worse, using a neutral self referral; at best, taking a stand against a stigmatizing world.
I have often asked people to show me a study showing that this usage is harmful. They supply me with plenty of anecdotes, testimonies, and pronouncements from their therapists and conference speakers, but not a single controlled study showing that the change of word order makes any difference in the recovery of the patient.
Stigma is another reason that proponents cite. But let’s get real: do the bigots really care whether we say “bipolar” or “person living with bipolar”? Will they change their mind about giving us a job because we use the one term instead of the other? I doubt it. It’s the derogation of the symptoms that is their hallmark. When we changed the name of the disease from manic-depression to bipolar disorder — largely in the name of blunting the abuse of calling us maniacs — mean people just shifted their disparaging associations to the new word. They will laugh as they laughed (often unjustly) at some of the suggestions of political correctness and use “person living with bipolar disorder” with a far crueler, mocking intent.
We are best served by seizing the word and combating the misinformation about what bipolar disorder is all about.
Elsewhere I have written:
Bipolar is a neat word, a convenient shortening of “bipolar disorder” indicating a difference between the disease and the sufferer. They want something else? Bipolaric? Could work.
The root of [therapists’] dislike [for the term} is that it leaves them out. There are the patients and there are the therapists. The patients like to get together, talk about the times their paranoia got the better of them or the hallucinations they’ve seen. The “war stories” leave the therapists out. So they try to drag us back into the mainstream by forbidding to us what distinguishes us. They see that as their job: to make us forget the past so they can control our futures.
I don’t want to go back to the kaleidoscope days — which is why I take my meds — but it is good to know that I have overcome all that, to know that against the odds I have survived. I suffer from bipolar disorder. I am bipolar. I stand smart and proud.
I stand by those words today. Enough of this kind of pointless obsession. It isn’t healthy.
See also Another Therapy-Land Folly