Personality or Bipolar?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has been used for everything from psychological assessment to career guidance. My mom is a psychotherapist who has access to the full Myers-Briggs personality test. When I was in high school, I begged her to let me take it. I was dying to find out who I was, and how I fit into the world. The instructions said to answer without analyzing or thinking too much, so I excitedly responded to each question based on my gut instinct of who I knew myself to be—at least at that point in my life. Once the score was tallied, I was designated ENFJ—short for extrovert, intuitive, feeling judging. I came out not just as an extrovert, but on the extreme end of the scale between I (introvert) and E. Of course, it made sense on paper. I had a lot of friends. I was a happy, fun-loving person who adored attention. I was one of those people who could walk up to strangers at a party and introduce myself. And—no joke—my first word wasn’t “mama” or “dada,” it was “hi.” The more time I spent around others, the more invigorated I felt. My personality test solidified my self-confidence.

Extroverts seemed like successful, spontaneous risk-takers who got the most out of life. Introverts were shy, unsure people who just didn’t seem as happy. My dad—who had bipolar disorder—was an introvert. He suffered from depression. He’d lock himself in his room for days. He always wanted to be left alone. I rarely saw him smile and I almost never saw him laugh. I thought to my high school self ‘I’ll never be like him, and I never want to be.’

When I was gearing up to graduate from college, I saw a vocational counselor. She suggested I take the Myers-Briggs as a means to discovering the career path best suited to me. I told her it wasn’t necessary for me to retake it. I said, “I already know who I am,” or something to that effect. But the counselor told me my brain wasn’t completely developed when I took the test in high school, and my identity hadn’t fully formed. She said my answers may surprise me. I was nervous. I didn’t want to be surprised at who I was. I’d always known myself as the gregarious woman who was everyone’s friend. I couldn’t imagine being any other way. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agreed to take the test again, for the sake of my future. I was reassured when I saw my results, which were exactly the same. I was even on the far end of “E” again. I laughed at myself for being so apprehensive. Of course, I was an extrovert. I could talk to anyone, about any subject, endlessly. The label “extrovert” was my identity. I felt vindicated. I was more sure of myself than I’d ever been before.

When I was in my twenties, something horrible happened. My dad—who had bipolar disorder, and who I’d never been close to—died by suicide. For four years, I pushed my grief and angst to the back of my mind. I didn’t react. I didn’t even cry. I just moved on with my life as if nothing was wrong. I ramped up my social life and threw myself into a whirlwind of constant partying and external stimulation. I worked forty hours a week during the day and stayed out drinking every night. I had one-night stands and flew into and out of several very intense relationships. On the surface, I just looked like someone who loved life and lived every day as if it was my last. Underneath though, I was a ticking time-bomb. I managed to successfully veil my internal pain from everyone—including myself—until 2002.

On the four-year anniversary of my dad’s death, I broke apart. I felt a huge chunk of my soul dislodge from my heart and float away like an iceberg sinking into a deep, dark ocean. I had to take disability leave from my job, and I stayed on my mom’s sofa crying nonstop for weeks. I stopped answering my phone. I lost interest in seeing my friends. I just wanted to crawl under a rock and hide forever. My mom took me to a psychologist, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. At first, I was confused. Weren’t people with bipolar disorder unhappy all the time, like my dad had been? I wanted to argue with the psychologist and tell him he was mistaken. How could I have bipolar disorder? I was an extrovert. I was the life of the party. My dad was the sick one. But the psychologist explained that it was precisely because I was the life of the party that my bipolar hypomania was apparent. He pointed out how I’d talked his ear off well after the interview portion of my psych eval was complete.

Then it all sunk in, and I realized he was right. But what did it all mean? Was I truly an extrovert, or had I just been hypomanic my whole life? I thought back to my Myers-Briggs test results. I couldn’t square my consistent big E definition with the fact that I had a mental illness that caused depression. Although I knew I’d had my first major depressive episode, it was still hard to fathom. I was terrified, too. Did my diagnosis mean I’d become one of those fearful introverts who isolated themselves like my dad did? Would I lose all my friends? Weren’t introverts depressed, and extroverts happy? Would I ever be happy again?

My bipolar disorder had always caused me to see things in black and white, grasping only extremes in every situation. I thought my big E defined me, and I could be no other way. I saw mania and depression only as polar (pun intended) opposites, like extroversion and introversion. And I’d always believed they were mutually exclusive and immutable. I’d always believed people were either one way or the other, and I was no different. The simple fact that, back then, I equated episodes in a diagnosable mood disorder to personality traits shows just how ignorant I was.

Once I was stabilized and began recovery, my familiar, cheerful, sociable nature returned. I didn’t lose my friends. I may not have been constantly revving my engine, jumping at the chance to chase every exciting new opportunity, but I was happy. I was content, and I breathed a sigh of relief. To satisfy my curiosity, I took the Myers-Briggs again. I came out as an E, though not on the far edge. Once I was adequately mentally stabilized, I found that I wasn’t as much of a social thrill-seeker as I’d previously thought.

When 2020 happened. I lived with my boyfriend of seven years. I wasn’t technically living alone, but I had to socially distance just like everyone else. At first, I was completely terrified that I wouldn’t be able to handle total isolation. After all, my personality was supposedly structured in a way that I literally needed social interaction to thrive. Would I shrivel up like an underwatered flower? I sucked it up and stayed home for months, which then turned into a year. I was shocked to find that not only was I okay with staying home essentially by myself, I loved it. I found all sorts of fun creative projects to do at home. I took online yoga and art classes. I found a strangely unfamiliar sense of total peace and calm just to have a sense of quiet around me. I noticed that—for the first time in my life—I felt serene. I was actually happy being alone.

As an only child, I never thought that was possible. I’d grown up being jealous of my friends with siblings. But during the COVID-19 crisis, I remembered something from my childhood I’d long since forgotten. I used to adore playing with my stuffed animals by myself in my room. Maybe I’d put too much stock in the Myers-Briggs.

As I write this, I’m waiting on my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Things will get back to “normal” sometime soon (whatever the new normal will be). I’ll be able to go out to my favorite bar and play trivia in the near future. I’ll be able to hug my friends. And what’s really shocking to me is the fact that I’m a bit hesitant. Not only am I worried I’ve lost all my social skills, and the sheer idea of being in close proximity to anyone makes my stomach drop, I wonder how exhausted I’ll feel after spending time around other people. Could it be that maybe, all this time, I’ve been more of an introvert? Had I just simply been acting out symptoms of my bipolar disorder because it was all I’d ever known? Maybe I’m just adaptable, and I adjusted well to the necessary social distancing that came with the pandemic. But now I enjoy spending time by myself much more than I did before. Maybe I am an introvert.

I’d always been horrified at the possibility that I could’ve been an introvert, because I equated introversion with depression, based on my experience growing up with my dad. But just because someone enjoys spending time by themselves, doesn’t mean they’re unhappy or lonely. And manic or depressive symptoms of a mood disorder like bipolar do not equate simply to being withdrawn or super sociable. Personality does not equal diagnosis, and vice versa.

I recently watched the HBO documentary “Persona” about personality tests like the Myers-Briggs, and how they’ve given people easily identifiable labels like ENFJ, INTP etc. to proudly brand themselves with so they can find a sense of community. The tests have helped thousands accept their quirks and idiosyncrasies. But these tests can be wrong. The answers aren’t set in stone because people can change. Watching the documentary made me question everything I’d believed about quantifiable personality traits.

These tests aren’t all they’ve cracked up to be. They can be misused or even used as weapons. Variations of the Myers-Briggs have been adopted by employers who—by law cannot ask job applicants if they have mental illness—used them as veiled mental illness screeners for potential employment candidates. Corporations have denied jobs to qualified people based on their supposedly unsatisfactory test results. The movie shares the story of one man who struggled with bipolar disorder and was turned down for jobs repeatedly based on these tests. He died by suicide, so his grieving dad—in his honor—continues to fight companies who used the tests for discriminatory hiring practices.

Labels like ENFJ are just that: labels. I am more than a label. I’m not “Carrie the extrovert” any more than I’m “Carrie the woman with bipolar disorder.” I’ve realized that labeling myself using the Myers Briggs kept me from seeing that maybe my extroversion was more of a symptom and less of a personality trait, and my label shoved me into a rigid box. I feel freed now that I realize people are complex and beautiful, no matter what.

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