Be yourself. That’s a pretty universal piece of advice. Whether you’re applying for a job or going on a first date, it’s something we’ve all heard at one time or another. When everyone can see the real you, the relationships you build are authentic. But because I have bipolar disorder, I have a hard time even knowing who “the real me” is. Am I the bubbly, energetic go-getter who’s the life of the party? Am I the sensitive, introspective person who sometimes cries too often? Or are those behaviors expressions of my bipolar disorder?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been outgoing. I was the kid who made friends with everyone. By the time I was 11 years old, my parents and teachers noticed my seemingly endless energy and my inability to sit still. I could be disruptive to class and exhausting to my parents. In my twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So was I just an energetic kid? Or was I hypomanic?
For those of us who have bipolar disorder, second-guessing your true nature comes with the territory. I don’t always recognize the person staring back at me when I look in the mirror. I was 22 the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. I came out on the extreme end of ENFJ, with an emphasis on the “E” for extrovert. Does the big “E” mean I’m really an extrovert, or is that my hypomania? Hypomania can be subtle. It can look to everyone (and sometimes even me) that I’m just someone with a lot of friends who loves to participate in social activities. But that’s also what an extrovert is. Sometimes it’s difficult to detangle my authentic self from all these labels.
Someone once asked me if I could get rid of my bipolar disorder, would I? My answer was no. No matter what I’ve been through, or how I’ve gotten to where I am now—whether it’s my bipolar disorder or my personality—I’m happy with who I am. Does that mean I ignore my illness and don’t take care of myself? Of course not. I recognize that I have a lifelong illness that needs lifelong care, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. I take my medication; visit the doctor regularly; get enough sleep, food and exercise; and try to keep things in perspective. I surround myself with a strong support network of friends and family who can tell me if they see me start to go off the rails.
I love the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The message I took away from the movie is this: if you’re given the choice to erase painful memories, it’s better to keep them. No matter what my experiences have been, whether they’re a result of bipolar disorder or not, they’re my experiences and I am a better person for having had them. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if it’s “me” or my bipolar disorder, as long as I take good care of myself—my true self and my bipolar self. I try not to focus on labels or worrying about what aspects of my behavior are my personality or the illness. Whatever the parts are that make up the whole of who I am, I like myself, and that’s what really matters.