The Diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder Should Never Become Your Identity

The Diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder Should Never Become Your Identity

Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation – Don’t let your diagnosis steal your identity!

When you receive any diagnosis from your doctor you may hear it as a neutral statement of fact, and might very well feel a sense of relief at finally having an “explanation” and hopefully a solution for the suffering you have been experiencing. When the doctor informs you that you have a serious or potentially life threatening disease your reaction is likely to be different and may be one of dread or panic rather than relief.

In the case of bipolar disease your reaction and that of most people is likely to be very different. The “condition” you have been living with now has a” name”, but this name is rarely reassuring since the term “bipolar” is only a slight improvement on the same illness which was previously called manic-depression. This diagnosis usually conjures up not only all of the fears and frightening emotions (like any serious illness) but also numerous negative images, stereotypes and expectations. Simply stated this diagnosis is still sadly linked in the minds of patients and their families with shame and stigma.

You may fear that if others discover that you have been diagnosed as bipolar you will be rejected, “branded”, and perceived as “different” and less desirable. Worse yet, you may believe it will greatly restrict your options and opportunities to be successful at work and at love.

Also, you may be afraid that if you “accept” this diagnosis you will be changed forever! You will no longer be able see yourself as you did before. Your perception may be that you will have to change your goals, your dreams, and your vision of yourself. In effect, in accepting this diagnosis you may feel stripped of your identity.

Because so many people view this diagnosis unfavorably they often refuse to accept it. This becomes a case of using negative stereotyping against yourself. As a result, people suffering with the symptoms of bipolar illness often reject the diagnosis and continue to suffer rather than accepting and complying with appropriate treatment.

A large part of the challenge in dealing with bipolar illness is not only coping with the symptoms of the disease through proper medication and appropriate therapy but also coming to grips with the subjective impact of the diagnosis on your identity.

Bipolar illness is far more than a mere medical diagnosis. It touches on the very essence of who you are and how you feel you will be perceived by others. An important component of total care and treatment involves not only the medical diagnosis and treatment of this illness, but the thoughtful exploration and discussion of the impact of the diagnosis on your sense of yourself and on your selfesteem. As a patient you must learn and be helped to learn how to “digest, absorb, assimilate” and integrate this particular and “highly loaded” diagnosis into a healthy and positive self-concept.

Anyone with a bipolar disorder must be educated to properly care for and live intelligently with the illness without being consumed by it. Even more important, you must learn to face this illness rather than denying it and stop pretending that this is not the problem. This process often takes considerable time and effort which is rarely offered in current medical practice.

In helping you to differentiate the diagnosis from your identity, certain ideas need to be explored:

1. Never confuse a condition or an illness with who you are.

2. Your essence should never be defined by your diagnosis. The best thing you can do about your diagnosis is to accept it and realize that it does not define you unless you let it. What is important is how you play this hand that you have been dealt. An illness is something that happens to you. It is not your fault. How you deal with it does demonstrate who you are. Your character is revealed in how you cope with adversity. Shame needs to be ultimately turned into pride.

3. To say you are “bipolar” simply describes the symptoms you have experienced. It does not say who you are and does not predict who you will be.

4. You also need to ask yourself: How much your view of stigma is actually a projection of how you see yourself? Often as people progress and are able to speak about their condition they discover that the stigma that they imaged is often less than they feared.

5. Addressing your illness does not have to be depressing in and of itself and become a noxious full time job. Don't let your struggle become your identity.

6. Sustaining wellness can be fulfilling and not necessarily a burden.

7. Perhaps you need to ask a larger question about identity: Who are you? What do you choose as your identity? Which components of yourself best define who you are to yourself and to others? Is it your work, your family, the people you love, your friends, your character, your gifts, your beliefs…or your diagnosis?

8. Keep in mind that many famous people have experienced bipolar illness, but it hardly defines who they are and what they have contributed to the world. Consider the following extraordinary people whose identity was a great deal more than their diagnosis: George Gordon, Lord Byron, English poet, writer, and adventurer; Dick Cavett, television journalist; Rosemary Clooney, singer and actress; Richard Dreyfuss,actor; Stephen Fry, actor.comedian and writer; Mel Gibson, actor and director; Graham Greene, English novelist; Ernest Hemingway, writer;Abbie Hoffman, political activist; Margot Kidder, actress; Vivien Leigh, actress; Florence Nightingale, nurse and health campaigner; Jane Pauley, TV presenter and journalist; Jackson Pollock, American artist;Robert Schumann, German composer;Frank Sinatra, American singer and actor; Ted Turner, American media businessman. Founder of CNN and

Katherine Brooks, director/writer/filmmakers who said "I don’t believe Bipolar holds me back as a person or a filmmaker. I actually believe it makes everything I do have more meaning, passion, and purpose. I’m thankful to be this way … thankful to be born Bipolar."

You must consider and connect to the positive aspects of who you are, rather than negatively connecting yourself and your identity to a medical diagnosis.

Faith and spirituality as well as the wisdom and compassion of a support group can be extremely helpful in fostering your positive identity, since this aspect of treatment is generally not addressed by the psychiatrist who is primarily focused on trying to find the best pharmaceutical solution for your problem. Recovery from bipolar illness must of necessity be a team effort.

A support group of peers is particularly well qualified to help anyone who has received this diagnosis come to see it as a “condition” which must be faced and treated appropriately rather than as a scar and source of shame which must be concealed. Indeed, if faced properly I have seen many patients who have attended a DBSA support group grow to the point where the challenge of the condition and its mastery has actually become a badge of courage rather than a source of humiliation.

People, when offered a safe opportunity to talk about their diagnosis instead of concealing it, discover that the more they speak about it in this accepting environment the more they reverse the internalized negative stereotype with a gradually emerging sense of pride, so that ultimately they are able to honor their recovery as a valued aspect of their identity.


This is the sixth and final of a series of articles written by Dr. John Tamerin specifically for the DBSA Leadership Circle Newsletter entitled Perspectives. Dr. Tamerin is a member of our Board of Directors and Scientific Advisory Board, and a Medical Consultant to the Greenwich, Connecticut DBSA Chapter.

Dr. Tamerin, a psychiatrist with over 40 years of clinical experience, has served for many years as Clinical Associate Professor at Weill/Cornell School of Medicine teaching residents and medical students. He has consistently been voted one of the Top Doctors in America by Castle Connelly.

Dr. Tamerin has published extensively in the areas of mood disorders and the addictions. He has served on the GAP committee on Alcoholism and the Addictions, the Committee on Human Sexuality and most recently has joined the committee on Psychiatry and the Arts. His goal in this series of articles has been to further integrate medicine with the Humanities and the Arts by presenting new and provocative perspectives of direct relevance to the treatment of people suffering with mood disorders.