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I Am Not My Disease — And It Doesn’t Matter How I Identify Myself

Posted on June 16, 2015 in Bipolar Disorder Psycho-bunk Reflections

*UPDATED*

square892I was scolded again for a variation on the “I am bipolar” line, this time for using the word “schizophrenic”. “I am not my disease” my attacker said. “I am diabetic and bipolar,” I replied. “I am not my disease, either.” I asked her to show me a study that showed that this self-identification was harmful. Silence. Then she denied that she had attacked me; I made it plain and clear that she had; and I told her to “own it”.

No neurological link has been found to show that how we self-identify has any effect on our recovery. Where did it come from? Some therapist who had read Frogs into Princes, perhaps? I had one who corrected me every time I called myself “bipolar” which disrupted my train of thought. In the end, she dropped me for not being able to reform to her satisfaction. I was concerned about anger issues and if there is one thing I got out of that experience was being able to hold my peace when someone was being an arrant ass.

Listening without judgement is the hallmark of good mental health first aid. I have often listened to people who said some horrid things and who used strings of profanity long enough to hentai Henry Miller and strangle him several times over. I said nothing. I knew that they were talking about their pain. So why did my therapist think it was appropriate to waste our sessions correcting me? I never thought to ask her for studies — that realization came later when I actually looked for research on the issue and found none. From my informal observation of people in my support group, I haven’t seen people who say “I am bipolar” go spiraling into episode any more than those who say “I have bipolar disorder”. I suspect my therapist at that time had read or heard something as unattributable as the contention that 90% of bipolar marriages fail.

If she had looked it up in a dictionary, she would have found that schizophrenic and bipolar are adjectives. I half agree with her about the harm, but only so far. When some newspaper writes about schizophrenic relations between two nations or some boyfriend whines about his bipolar girlfriend, the terms are used inappropriately. But it is appropriate usage to say I am a bipolar man or I am a bipolar photographer or, simplest of all, I am bipolar. It carries nothing of the weight of the club that was used to castigate me.

Sane privilege may explain why therapists have been so quick to grab onto this. It lets them define how we may call ourselves. When I saw a woman being shamed for calling herself bipolar at a class a few weeks ago by a social worker, I saw a medical professional putting a patient “in her place”. “We aren’t our disease,” was the argument then and always.

Yes, but the disease is part of what makes us who we are, just like white, middle-classed, male, and diabetic help form the gestalt that is me. I don’t reduce myself to any one of these, but the combination is my identity. Knowing that I am bipolar is part of what it takes to understand me, like it or not. I get to decide what I present as my face to the world.

So why do some patients lash themselves to the mast and ram their ships of mind into those of us who “err”? Desperation is one thing that comes to mind: therapists and self-help book writers have convinced them that if they do this, they will be better. Fear of stigma is another powerful motive — they have heard outsiders use the phrase far too often as a slur. But I am an insider. Why choose me? Why am I being blamed for perpetuating stigma?

I can only guess by the origin and its effects. First, I suspect that it originates with people who do not live with the disease themselves, who feel left out when we differentiate our identifies and our interests as separate in some ways from theirs or who were upset by the slow progress of some of their clients. They might go so far as to call themselves “human beings” to avoid all the nasty baggage that comes with my calling myself white, middle-classed, bipolar male, which is to deny my uniqueness, my privilege and nonprivilege, and my inclusion in certain larger categories. They get the same benefit from hectoring us without acknowledging their superior position as medical professionals and caretakers as white people do when they say that despite all the unchecked benefits they get from being white and their demonization of poor black people that they are not racist.

Second, it puts the blame for our illness on us. By referring to ourselves in this way, the logic proceeds, we are making ourselves sicker and more dependent. It is not the fault of caretakers or therapists or psychiatrists or other mental health professionals or even of the disease! We engender our own problems by our use of language! This line of reasoning leaves us spinning in the wind and makes us feel guilty for a condition that we had no part in creating.

Third, it breaks those of us who are afflicted into warring factions, arguing about something that isn’t important. We help them control us. One can liken this to the relationship between the upper class and the working classes. High above, there are millionaires living in mansions. The working class lives in squalor. They would resist and attack the privilege of the upper classes, except that the latter have recruited some of the middle and working classes to serve as police. Police receive some special benefits such as the right to violence, but are otherwise little different from the working class people who they club. There’s not much difference between me and those who scold me for my usage of the word “bipolar”, but the former are all too willing — for next to no money if any at all — to do the work of the therapists and other caretakers in preventing a consciousness from forming.

Fourth, fighting about this petty issue keeps us from focusing on larger, more important issues like housing, adequate access to medicine, and the kinds of stigma that really do hurt. We who are mentally ill don’t fear each other, but we do fear what the sane can do to us and so we bicker amongst ourselves while letting their control over us go unchallenged.

A new consciousness of ourselves as we relate to our illnesses is required here, one not founded on silly semantics, but on the common ground we hold with others who have our illness. I stand up whenever I see someone abusing someone else for saying that they are bipolar or schizophrenic or autistic because, yes, a piece of me is my disease. Understanding that makes me less likely to let my guard down when it comes to taking the meds. Finding that same disease in others makes me feel less alone. Sharing our experience makes us stronger and better able to state what we need and not what some therapist or caretaker thinks we need.

This squabble needs to end. Let accept our diversity and our commonality.


A similar silliness occurs over the use of the word consumer versus patient. I find consumer stigmatizing because it implies that my diagnosis is just another product on the market. What do I consume? is what a friend of mine asks. No one has a legitimate answer except to make the suggestion that calling ourselves patients somehow mauls our consciousness. Idiots.

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