Saturday, March 24, 2007

Do You Know?

Two psychiatrists went duck hunting and the first pointed overhead and said, "There flies a duck." The other psychiatrist replied, "Yes, but does he know he's a duck?"

There's a touch of reality buried in that joke. We don't always know who or what we are. Self-identity is especially confusing for people who have Bipolar Disorder and those who know them intimately. Because of the nature of this disease, it's difficult for all of us to separate the disorder from the essential person.

I remember that during the late sixties and early seventies young people went in search of their self-identity. Probably every generation has wondered what place they would have in the world and how people would be able to distinguish them from other humans or with what words they might be described to strangers.

Self-description can be as important as how others would speak of you. I strongly believe that when we say, "I'm Bipolar," then we have made a serious psychological mistake. If we do so, then we have added to the confusion and the difficulty in separating the disorder from our core personality and character. We become our illness, not just a person afflicted with the illness.

I can think of no other disease whose patients would identify themselves so closely with their medical condition. We would certainly be surprised if someone introduced themselves saying, "Hi. I am Cancer, or I am Diabetes or I am Heart Disease." That would sound pretty strange, but people with BP disorder will usually say, "I'm Bipolar," as if that tells others (and self) who or what they truly are.

It has long been acknowledged behavior among men for one to ask another, "What do you do?" This is usually an attempt to find a basis for relationship. Men generally judge another man's identity and worth by what they DO (occupation) rather than by what they ARE in terms of character and spirituality. Test it. The next time you are in a situation where you are being introduced to strangers, see how long it takes for someone to ask you the "do" question.

The obvious problem with that is that people are much more (sometimes less) than what they do. What do you really know about me if I say that I'm a husband, father, veteran, horse trainer, college student, minister, bartender, high-voltage lineman, salesman, counselor, bus driver, expert rifleman, document analyst, businessman or hamburger cook? I've been (done) all of those things, but does knowing that get you any closer to identifying the essential me? Does changing occupations change my personality or character?

Is it any wonder that people who have Bipolar Disorder are continually having an "identity crisis?" There is surely a place where the illness ends and the true person begins, but we struggle with locating the line. Our medical professionals and our loved ones have difficulty determining which behaviors are attributable to the disorder and which are an expression of personality and character.

About two years ago, I began a quest for my own identity. I was confused myself. My method was to locate all of my old school annuals and personal letters and report cards and notes of encouragement that I have received from family, friends and co-workers. Then I began to read them carefully, compiling a list of key descriptors related to my personality or character traits. After hours of analyzing and making notes, I began to see that some remarks were consistent from childhood through adulthood. There were certain personality and character traits that most people saw, no matter how old I was or what I was "doing" or where I lived or how depressed I was.

Even though my methodology was less than perfect, I believe that I now have a better understanding of myself. I now have one more tool to battle the insidious nature of Bipolar depression. I am not "Mr. Mood Disorder." I have a name, a personality, a character, a history and an identity uniquely mine. I also have a personal manifestation of a serious mental illness. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter whether or not I am understood by others or even myself. There is One who knows me better than anyone can. The One who identifies me as His beloved child.

"O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all of my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. ....Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain (Psalm 139: 1-4, 6)."

1 comment:

Brian Nicklaus said...

thanks for that. while I don't have BP, I have been going through a mild existential crisis of my own.

good thoughts. God bless you.