When the emergency room psychiatrist said that I might be having a bipolar mixed episode, I was taken aback. What I thought had just been severe anxiety and a bout of depression was a condition I thought only other people got. I was way too quiet, too anxious, too risk averse. It wasn’t ‘me’.
A few weeks later, when I was formally diagnosed with bipolar I, I worried that the diagnosis was wrong. What if it was something else? What if I described my symptoms the wrong way? What if I am taking the wrong medication? My new psychiatrist said that I had no insight – I definitely had bipolar disorder. It typically takes years to be correctly diagnosed with this illness, so I should count myself lucky.
I spent the next seven years in confusion. I swung between the conviction that I had bipolar disorder, and total denial. When I thought about the connection I had to nature, my creativity, and racing thoughts, I believed that I had been wrong about my diagnosis. But now and again my short-lived moods, sensitivity, and paranoia would make me question whether I didn’t have another disorder altogether.
I had all the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Yet doctors instantly dismissed the suggestion that I might have it; I was pleasant, had a steady job, and long-term friendships. My frustration only grew as I was told that my symptoms weren’t ‘bad enough’. But I was determined to find an answer for the symptoms I had been experiencing.
I got the same question time and time again from my friends and family: Is it really worth it? After all, it’s just a label. Does it even matter if you are already getting the right treatment? Don’t you think you are limiting your sense of self by insisting on a diagnosis?
A diagnosis is indeed just a label. But having this label lets me view my mental health issues in a new way. It allows me to study the symptoms and see patterns emerge, giving me a way to analyze what I do and why. Suddenly I have a way to explain to my friends and family what I am going through. When they know the diagnosis, they can find support for themselves too. Now I can find a community of people who feel the same way I do and share my experiences. With a diagnosis, I can talk to others who are going through the same thing.
The stigmatized views of all the doctors who deemed me too pleasant made me feel invalidated. It made me feel like my pain and symptoms weren’t real or ‘bad enough’. I wanted someone to listen to me, take me seriously, and give me an evaluation to set my mind at ease. So when I was recently finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I felt relief. Receiving the diagnosis was freeing, not limiting.
Ironically, it helped me to accept my bipolar disorder diagnosis. Now that I know the symptoms that affect my day-to-day life the most are due to borderline personality disorder, it is easier to accept that my underlying chronic, treatment-resistant depression is caused by bipolar disorder. I have found the name for what I couldn’t put my finger on, and can now see how the symptoms of both conditions differ and sometimes overlap.
That, and a second opinion, made me realize that I do have bipolar disorder. Accepting my diagnosis made me realize that my views on the condition had initially been stigmatizing. How could I have made an assumption about the personalities of people with bipolar disorder? How could I have deemed myself above a bipolar diagnosis? My mind was clouded by my pride and warped perception of people with the disorder.
To find and accept the right diagnoses, I have had to let go of my preconceptions. I have had to advocate for myself, even when I was faced with professionals’ ignorance and stigmatized views. I have had to start viewing mental illness as a genuine health issue, not a shortcoming. But most important of all, I’ve realized that a diagnosis does not have to feel like ‘me’ – it simply needs to fit my symptoms.
What’s in a diagnosis for you? Have you struggled to accept one, or sought one?