October 03, 2022
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Having depression can feel like it defines your life. It’s important to find ways to remind yourself who you are outside of your mental illness.
Over the years, my doctors have trained me to be vigilant about my mood swings and fluctuations. I’ve been instructed to look for lost sleep and fast thoughts as the beginnings of mania. And, of course, there’s the raw emptiness of depression that is the other side of my bipolar disorder.
I’m constantly struggling to figure out what is just “a mood” and when I need to reach out to my mental health providers.
My psychiatrist tells me there are two options for living the bipolar life.
First, you can take so many medications that you end up getting through your days like a zombie. In that case, the highs and lows may be gone, but it might be more difficult to engage in meaningful activities like work or school.
On the other hand, you can take less medication and cope with your highs and lows. The pills lessen the effects of the mood disorder. Either way, it can feel like mental illness is defining your life.
When I was first diagnosed, my illness quickly became my identity. It was my way to cope — my excuse for feeling miserable and missing more high school classes than I actually attended.
I was hungry for more information about my illness: the symptoms and the treatments that would hopefully make life easier. I read countless books about mental health, both self-help guides to help me get through the days and memoirs about other people who had lived with mental illnesses. Their stories were reassuring and encouraging.
In the middle of high school, I was hospitalized for the first time.
Standing in front of the doors of the adolescent psych unit, I knew there was no turning back. A lot of teens take psychiatric medications and go to therapy, but they don’t always end up in hospitals.
This experience just reinforced the way I saw myself playing out the role of someone with depression instead of Elizabeth. In the psych ward, I met people with bandaged wrists who had overdosed.
When I came back to high school following my hospitalization, my classmates did not know how to treat me. Being known as the “crazy girl” contributed to my mental illness identity.
Every one of my peers knew where I had been during the previous week. Some of them were hungry for details while others pretended as if I didn’t even exist.
While my algebra teacher was talking about polynomials, I was remembering what the psych ward smelled like, and what it felt like to have all the other patients stare at me while I cried in group therapy sessions.
College was even worse. My professors weren’t as accommodating as my high school teachers had been. And my illness was more severe by then, consuming time that should have been spent in lecture halls and dorm parties.
I had become that girl in the dorm who never stopped crying and stayed in her room all the time because she was too scared to be out in the real world, with real people.
When I finally found the right treatments, my illness had less of a death grip on me.
I started to enjoy novels and memoirs that were not related to mental illness. I graduated from college and began my pursuit of graduate education.
I still struggle with the battle to be myself and not the depressed version of myself — and this struggle is intensified whenever I am going through an episode — but I’m more aware and mindful when this is happening.
I’m fortunate to have resources I know not everyone with depression has: I have a brilliant psychiatrist who is accessible and kind, and family and friends who are so supportive. I have psychiatric medications that would be overwhelmingly expensive without health insurance. And if I’m in a particularly severe manic or depressive episode, I know that I can seek treatment in a hospital.
Once I started to feel grateful for all the things that I do have, I realized there’s a whole world out there without my illness.
I have also learned that when you are stuck in the mental illness vortex, it’s hard to grow up and move on with your life.
Psychotherapy has proved to be another helpful tool in allowing me to see myself for who I really am. I have been fortunate over the last few years to have two individual therapists who guided me toward independence.
My psychiatrist has made it clear that no matter what I do or how compliant I am with taking my medications, I will always be vulnerable to mood shifts. But this doesn’t need to take over my life.
I just need to focus on keeping myself as healthy as possible and ride out those highs and lows without making them my entire identity.
I am also making a strong effort to open up my world to new people and experiences — without letting my mental illness stop me.
Life with a mental illness is never easy, but I have found that making it your identity sometimes only makes your depression worse.
Medically reviewed on October 03, 2022
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