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Not Defined by My Illness

I had an identity crisis when I was 33. It happened as I stared at my psychiatrist, mouth
open, mind swirling, when he said:
“You have Bipolar Disorder.”
My world came crashing down, and with it, my sense of self.

I knew I had been depressed, and dangerously so. Months of medical trial and error had not yet helped. I flirted with suicidal thoughts. I struggled to function as a human, let alone a mother of five children under 10, including an infant. I credit my faithful husband with our family’s survival.

Suddenly, the latest in a string of antidepressants triggered something I had forgotten existed: happiness. I had instant energy, and with it, I concocted ambitious plans. I started to paint bedrooms, learn a challenging piano piece, lose ten pounds. I thought the world was mine…but it wasn’t. I had jumped straight from depression to mania.

A female doctor consults with an adult female patient about her depression.

As delightful as mania could be (just the freedom from darkness was intoxicating), it came with anger and agitation. I was soon troubled by the swing of my emotions. The “ups” were brief and the “downs” crashed hard. There was no middle ground. Bipolar made sense of recent swings, but the stigma of the illness disturbed me.

A review of my life revealed a tell-tale Bipolar pattern. However, to protect my fragile ego, I questioned everything. Had I truly been having manic episodes for more than a decade? Was the dating, working, straight-A college student Manic Heidi, or just the regular me? Was it true that Depressed Heidi was simply the lazy girl who didn’t try?  Who was the real Heidi? I yearned to know, but the answers came slowly.

My depression surfaced in early married life. I didn’t understand my oppressive sadness. Despite the blessings of a husband, baby, and new home, my world looked gray. Depression lifted for long periods of time (sometimes replaced with mania), but seven years and three babies later, it was a constant companion. I was always irritable. The deliberately calm mother in me disappeared. I was also sad, withdrawn, lethargic, and distressed that I couldn’t do things that made me feel valuable: host parties, attend park trips, serve others. Basic tasks stretched me. I was broken.


I now believe I had prolonged manic phases as a young mother. “Doing it all” energized me. I was the consummate committee chair, musician, and party planner. My kids and I took day trips to the beach, the apple orchard, and the zoo, always with scrapbooked photos the next week. One year I successfully trained for a marathon in 11 short weeks. I exercised a lot, didn’t sleep much, and was generally very happy for long periods of time. I thrived on the positive feedback from my family and others. Life with young kids wasn’t close to perfect (parenting is hard whether or not Mom is mentally ill!), but I remember those years being very happy overall. The notion of manic influence never entered my mind.

After my Bipolar diagnosis five years ago, I expected to uncover a completely new person, one who was neither manic nor depressed. That would be the “real me,” the standard by which I would judge all moods and behaviors. Actually, there are parts of the real me in every phase. My mania seems to amplify innate characteristics and recreational interests, while depression strangles them. When I am manic I might train for a marathon; when stable I might jog a few days per week; when depressed I might not exercise at all. I tend to tie productivity and accomplishment to my personal worth, so mania and depression elevate or diminish my self-esteem. This awareness prompts the questions: Do significant accomplishments alone make me valuable in the world? Am I nothing without them?

The answer to both questions is, of course, “No.”

I can now say that I am not defined by my illness.  I have learned to express, “I have bipolar disorder” instead of “I am bipolar.” I am not the sum of my accomplishments. I can confidently affirm that I am compassionate, a loyal friend, and a dedicated wife and mother even though today I did not take a shower, make dinner, or volunteer at the book fair. Having a mental illness does not mean I don’t contribute to my family and society. I am an important, lovable person simply because I am breathing, and if breathing is all I can do today, that is great!

Time and treatment have not healed me. My psychiatrist recently said, “Our goal is not relief of symptoms, but better management of them.” I will probably battle Bipolar all my life. As such, I have chosen to speak more openly about it. I am trying to overcome the social stigma of mental illness, which is challenging because it attacks a person’s core identity. Explaining Bipolar to my young children has been difficult. I don’t want to frighten them, but I do want them to have a vocabulary for and basic understanding of my experience. I wrote two personal stories: “When Mommy Feels Sad,” and “Feeling Manic and Other Things.” I shared them with my children, friends, and family members. Some cried with me; others felt educated and enlightened. My therapists endorsed them.

Out of my painful journey have come two children’s books that will be published in the spring and fall of 2018. I hope they help start conversations about mental illness. Someday I would love to write a series of books about other sensitive topics like these. I am hopeful that through my darkness I might shine a light of hope for others.

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