I read a lot of posts about mental health, including accounts of those who live it. I frequently see one idea pop up: that the illness is not the person. Depression, anxiety or what have you is something that we have, not something that defines us. We’re not broken. We just have something extra on our plate.

If that view is comforting, and if it describes you accurately, then by all means keep it. I’m not here to rain on anybody’s parade. But I have come to accept the opposite for myself.

Bipolar disorder is an integral part of my personality, my mind and who I am.

Let me break it down.

What, exactly, defines someone? How would you describe a friend or yourself? “He’s a funny guy. She’s very sweet. He’s super strict. She’s quite smart.” Other than physical attributes, we tend to view people in terms of their temperament, emotions, experiences, words and actions. My bipolar brain influences all of these.

People call me smart. Some may say I’m talented. Many times I dove into challenging subjects, books and creative pursuits. I believe I can attribute nearly all of those initiations to swings of mania and delusions of grandeur. I wouldn’t have tackled a statistics minor in college, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera when I was 13, or music composition in general without a surge of courage and energy.    

That came from mania, and is difficult to maintain or replicate under normal circumstances.  

I’m often described as calm and collected. I developed this trait through practicing constant cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, even in social situations. I would not have learned that and internalized it without therapy. I can thank my illness for sending me there.

I listen a lot. This comes from an innate sense of empathy my depression has given me. So many times I just want to scream all of the dark and lonely thoughts in my head. I totally understand wanting someone to listen to me. When someone else needs the same courtesy, I give it to them. I know how important it is, and I’ve come to enjoy it.

My illness prompted me to start a support group and get a job as a social worker. Those experiences color my political beliefs heavily. I depend on my religion for quite a bit of strength. I don’t know where I’d be spiritually if things came easy to me.

Most of the thoughts in my head are spontaneous. In depressive periods they are dark, crippling my social and professional lives. In mania they are wild fantasies that fuel any number of imaginative speculations from politics to dating to religion to science to art. In stable times they are dull comparatively.

Again, thanks to bipolar disorder.

Speaking of dating: I become a decent amount hypomanic with most dating successes. This influences how I speak, act and even boosts my sense of humor. When I am depressed it’s hard to put up a good act and I come off as muted or boring. If I feel well, I’ll go on dates. If not, I turn people away.

There certainly are aspects f myself that do not come from my neurodiversity. My ethics come from my parents and my religion. My intelligence is largely a product of my education. My tastes, hobbies and interests probably come from the circumstantial influence of friends and family.

But I do think differently. I daydream a bunch and my imagination can be wild. (A side effect of racing thoughts, I presume). I can be incredibly suspicious of others’ motives (A product of paranoia). I mull things over and over, including solutions for work and relationship turmoil. (Obsessive tendencies, anyone?)

I don’t want to challenge or upend the dominant narrative that mental illness is a feature and not a definition of a person. For myself, I am myself largely in part to a different kind of brain. I’m ok with that. I think that’s a beautiful thing.