April 22, 2013
Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Melissa Cogswell shares her personal experience with mental illness—her struggles, her strength, and her realization that having a diagnosis does not mean that you are the diagnosis.
I have bipolar disorder.
It has taken me ten years, numerous doctors and therapists, many medications, countless relationships, and too many cycles through mania and depression to count (or even remember) to realize that I HAVE bipolar, not that I AM bipolar.
I was first diagnosed when I was nineteen. I was informed that I was bipolar and that if I wasn’t heavily medicated, I would kill myself. It felt like a death sentence; at least if I committed suicide, I would have some level of control. After I began the medications, I went from being a driven, curious, academically inclined person to a lump that slept twenty hours a day. I couldn’t read; I couldn’t think; I could barely focus to watch a 30-minute sitcom on TV.
I knew that I couldn’t handle a life I wasn’t living, so I stopped seeing the doctor. I stopped taking the medications. I began to self-medicate. I spent years cycling through mania and depression, occasionally seeking help from a doctor whose first inclination was to medicate me. No one wanted to hear what I wanted. I felt that, because I was ill, what I wanted didn’t matter. The doctors “knew” what was best for me. I had to obey or not receive treatment. I opted not to seek treatment.
In the summer of 2008, I found myself in the emergency room after being sexually assaulted. I was manic and I was scared. I asked for a doctor and I asked for medication; both were provided to me. I immediately liked Dr. S. She wanted to hear how I felt and not just prescribe me drugs. She listened to me. She didn’t just want to talk about my illness. In her office I talked about my hopes, my dreams, my goals, and my relationships. In her office I realized that I wasn’t my illness. My illness was, and always will be, a part of me, but it does not define me.
After several months working with Dr. S and taking medication I realized that it was not what I wanted. The drugs kept me from cycling, dulled my thinking, and had other impacts on my life that I wasn’t comfortable with. With trepidation, I asked her if we could begin to work towards managing my illness without medication. After listening to me explain how I felt I could manage my illness with the coping skills we had identified in our time together, she readily agreed. She understood that this was my life and my illness, and it was her job to help me implement the choices that I felt were best for me.
Dr. S. helped me understand that I am not bipolar, but instead that I have bipolar disorder. She was the first doctor I worked with who understood that I was not my illness; that I had my own hopes, dreams, and goals; and, just like people without mental illness, I am allowed to decide what is best for me.
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