Do I have bipolar disorder, or am I bipolar? This semantic question is constantly debated on bipolar forums and blogs. People seem to feel very strongly about it, and with good reason, so I’m weighing in on it too.
It’s really an issue of identity and self-image. It’s a question of our relationship to the illness and how we see it – and ourselves – on a personal level. Saying that I am bipolar doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m over-identifying with bipolar or have internalized a disease mentality. It’s a forthright admission that this condition has a huge impact on my life and behavior. Saying that I have bipolar disorder gives me more distance from it, and I suppose it acknowledges that I am more than my mental status implies. But it also suggests that bipolar is communicable or might go away, which simply isn’t true.
From my perspective, I have a condition, currently referred to as bipolar disorder. I am not my illness, but it does have a major influence on my past, present, and future, which shapes who I am. So I am bipolar. I accept that just like I accept my diagnosis and the labels – they are useful for guiding treatment, and they accurately describe my condition. The fact that everyone manifests this slightly differently is only natural, but we’re not all unique snowflakes with respect to bipolar disorder, despite what people like to believe. We share a set of symptoms and related challenges. If they weren’t shared, then there wouldn’t be such a thing as bipolar disorder and we wouldn’t get much-needed treatment or disability accommodations. When I talk about my condition, I use have/am interchangeably, and I don’t think it needs to be a big deal, at least not for me. I also tend to use the term “condition” more often than “illness” because it’s less stigmatized and perhaps more accurate. I sure don’t feel ill, just…different.
Semantically, the way we talk about disease, illnesses, and medical conditions is complicated. We never say that we have obesity, but instead that we are obese. Someone might say that they have cancer, but never that they are cancer – instead, they are a cancer victim or sufferer. I don’t know why mental illness is different, but on the whole, mentalists make a much bigger deal out of these semantics. I suspect it has a lot to do with stigma.
My opinion? Get over it. Use whatever term you prefer, and don’t hate on people who choose to say it the other way around.