How do we talk about mental illness?

When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I was shocked. It was good to have an answer to why I was feeling the way I was, but I didn’t know how to process the news. I remember sitting in the psychiatrist’s office, stunned into silence, as she began to explain the first steps in my treatment. A part of me was relieved—an answer, finally!—but the rest of me was completely numb to what she was saying. 

Bipolar. Bipolar. Bipolar.

That word would soon become a large part of my identity, but on the first day of the diagnosis, it seemed foreign.

Actually, someone very close to me had Bipolar Disorder—I’d known about it all growing up. I knew generally what the disorder entailed, just because of our relationship. But that was someone else. What did Bipolar Disorder mean for me?

Bipolar. Bipolar. Bipolar.

I hated the word. Sure, it was better than “manic depressive,” as it once was called, but the word still had a bite to it. Because of how the term was tossed around in our culture, there was still a great deal of stigma. (There still is.)

I wanted to keep it a secret. I told my close friends and family, but I hid the diagnosis from acquaintances. Was it any of their business? Not really. But that’s not why I kept it a secret. I was ashamed of the word, of the label.

I didn’t know how to think about the word “Bipolar” in terms of my identity. The disorder had taken over my life and hijacked my plans for the future. The disorder would alter the way I lived the rest of my life. I was still Anna, but it was different now. I couldn’t ignore the huge mental illness that was now a part of my life, but how could I reconcile it with my old identity? Who am I?

“I am Bipolar.”

I tried saying those three words, trying to come to terms with a new part of myself, but it never sounded right.

“I am Bipolar” made it sound like the mental illness was all encompassing. It made me feel like that was the only important thing about me, when, deep down, I knew that wasn’t true.

Yes, Bipolar Disorder changed my life. But it didn’t define me, did it? There was more to me than that. It was part of me, but it wasn’t all of me.

When other people are diagnosed with diseases or conditions that are not related to mental health, they do not define themselves with those diseases. Never do you hear “I am cancer” or “I am diabetes.” That sounds absurd! It would be insulting to have one’s identity narrowed down to breast cancer or something like anemia. So why do we “define” a person with a mental illness? You are Bipolar. A mental illness is a physical sickness, just like any other sickness.

That’s why I now reject “I am Bipolar.” You will never hear me say that.

“I have Bipolar Disorder:” That’s what I say. “You have Bipolar:” That’s what I prefer to hear.

It may sound like a silly distinction. What’s the big deal? It’s a nuance, right? Am I just being overly sensitive? I don’t think I am.

If we should know anything in our culture today, it’s that language is important. Words carry weight. When we are talking about illness—something difficult and extremely personal—what we say matters.

Saying “I have Bipolar” instead of “I am Bipolar” gives me just the right amount of distance I need from the disease. I can acknowledge that it is a part of my life, but I can also reject that it defines me. I’ve struggled with my identity a lot since the diagnosis five years ago, and that’s the place I’ve come to.

Talking about someone’s mental illness warrants caution and care. I’d suggest that you err on the safe side. Say “she has [the mental illness]” instead of “she is [the mental illness].” Maybe a certain person won’t care either way, and that’s okay. But it’s still respectful to be particular about diction in case a person does care.

If you’re unsure of what to say, listen to how others refer to themselves. If you notice someone say “I have Bipolar,” follow his or her lead and adapt your language.

How I talk about myself can change how I feel about myself: that’s key. And it’s just as true when we talk about others.

2 thoughts on “How do we talk about mental illness?

  1. Excellent post Anna! I struggle with OCD and anxiety, so I know how hard it can be to struggle with mental illness, even though our situations are not exactly the same. It is so true that our identity is ultimately found in Jesus Christ, and the things that we face on this earth do not define us! Keep up the great writing and God bless!

  2. Good blog on bipolar. I suffered from depression for many years and survived 2 suicide attempts. I’m okay now and have been for about 25 years. Doug keeps an eye on me to be sure I don’t slide back down, but if I start down, he can usually help me stop before I get in the pit. Bless you for your blog. Love you and Rob a bunch. Hugs.

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