Do I Need a "Real Me"?: Accepting Bipolar Personality Traits
One of the more common debates among people with bipolar disorder is whether or not we should consider bipolar disorder something external to us, like a disease that we have, or whether we should consider bipolar disorder internal to ourselves, as something we are. I don’t think anyone would say that it is something we are as a whole, except in some sense of political identity, but that is a concept that hasn’t really caught on among people with mental illnesses (for the better, I think).This tends to manifest itself in terms of the language people use. If we consider bipolar disorder to be something we have, we might say “I have bipolar disorder,” like one might say. “I have diabetes.” If we consider bipolar disorder to be something we are, we might say “I am bipolar,” like one might say, “I am diabetic.” One rarely hears the phrase, “I am a bipolar”, which sort of implies that it describes that person as a whole (though compare “I am a diabetic”, which does not).
All of this goes back to whether or not bipolar disorder is something that we should consider to be something outside of the “real me”. On the externalist view, “I” am what I would have been had I never had bipolar disorder. The more that my bipolar disorder is controlled, the more I am really “myself”, and the more that my bipolar disorder controls my actions, the more that I am not really “myself”.
On the internalist view, “I” am myself whenever I act or feel, whether I am having an episode or not. So, if I am having a manic episode, “I” am really manic, and if I am having a depressive episode, “I” am really depressed. Anything that springs from bipolar disorder springs from me, because my bipolar disorder is a part of me.
I am very much of the “whatever works” school when it comes to conceptualizing one’s mental illness. For some people, thinking of the disorder as being external helps them to conceive of themselves as being stable in the midst of the whirlwind of emotions around them. For other people, thinking of the disorder as being internal helps them take ownership of their emotional states. Both conceptions are potentially therapeutic, and if either conception is a part of a person’s recovery, I have no wish to say that the conception is incorrect. Each person’s story of recovery is that person’s own, and should be listened to, not criticized.What I do want to propose is a third possible way of conceptualizing what is happening, which might provide some people with another conceptual framework that might be itself therapeutic. I’d like to suggest the possibility of simply jettisoning the concept of the “real me” entirely.
First, I’d like to do a very quick, simplistic and largely inaccurate history of modern philosophy of mind. Before modern philosophy, we were animals. We were rational ones, to be sure, and with a soul, but we were animals and organisms. By separating the soul and body the way Descartes did with his cogito, we ultimately became something else by the time we reach John Locke: persons. Persons are mental beings that coexist with or supervene on our bodies.
Personhood, however, is problematic. For one thing, if we’re persons and not organisms, it’s not especially clear what makes us the same persons over time. What makes me the same organism over time is relatively straightforward; what makes me the same person is not. This is the problem of “personal identity”. For example, Locke argued that when someone loses his or her memory, he or she becomes a new person, since it is memory that ties it together. Freaky Friday taught us that persons can switch bodies entirely.
One thing that gives us a sense of unity of ourselves over time is our “personalities”, a set of character traits that persist over time (note: I am not using the term in the technical, psychological sense of “personality”, but in the philosophical and common language one; I am not implying bipolar disorder is a personality disorder in the technical sense). With the shift in thought from conceiving of ourselves not as persons, not as organisms, having a consistent personality became increasingly important to one’s sense of identity.
It is here that people with bipolar disorder start to have a problem. We don’t exactly have a single personality, defined as a set of consistent character traits. Some character traits persist over time, but other character traits change based on where we are in our cycles. I at one point joked with my therapist that I had at least five personalities: the manic one, the stable one, the depressed one, the anxious one and the irritable one. People without mental illnesses can have mood swings, but we have personality swings.So, at this point, I’m stuck. I either be an externalist and pick one of these personalities to be the real me, and most people choose the stable one (though some will choose the manic one), or I can be an internalist and think of myself as being a leaf on the wind, with something I call my “personality” but is anything but. Since my mental states are so unstable, if I think of myself as a “person”, that is, if I think of myself as a collection of mental states, I am forced to choose between only parts of my experiences being really me or identifying myself as an inherently unstable being.
It is at this point that I’d like to just jettison the entire idea of personhood. If I think that my personality is somehow the “real me”, whether I identify with a part of it or the whole of it, then I am stuck. Because my mental states are pathological there is no way to conceive of myself as a mental being without dissociating part of my mental experience or conceiving of myself as inherently flawed.
Instead, I like to conceptualize myself as a human organism: this human being here named Daniel. I am not a person. I am not any part of my mental states and I am not my personality. Rather, my personality is simply a part of me like my reason or my spleen. Like any other part of me, it can be diseased. In my case, because I have bipolar disorder, my personality, specifically my moods, are disordered.
However, because I don’t think of myself as being a person, these disordered moods are no threat to my self-esteem. I can’t be a bad person or a disordered person because I am not a person. As a result, I don’t need to either hive off a part of my personhood that I consider my good part (the externalist position), nor do I need to embrace my disorder in order to embrace myself (the internalist position). Instead, part of my personality is just disordered, and that’s okay, because I’m not a person anyway.
I have found thinking of myself as human organism very helpful in avoiding some of the issues around self-esteem that come from having a mental illness, so I thought I would share it with other people. It has been an important part of my own recovery from bipolar disorder. I hope that others may find this perspective helpful as well.