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To be bipolar is to be controlled by my illness. To have bipolar is to have control over my illness. The subtleties of language have great differences in meaning. I imagine to be diagnosed with any mental illness, the initial tendency is to slap the label on myself, saying I am ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar, BPD, schizophrenic, <insert mental illness diagnosis here>. Likewise, the initial tendency for a person not educated about mental illness is to label those people who have it according to their illnesses.

I suspect this is the case because mental illness has an effect on the mind, which is very near to our core being. When it spins out of control, it is magnified and shows up prevalently in the forefront of that person. In order to become diagnosed, this must often happen. In my case, I couldn’t help but look out through a looking glass shaped by bipolar, interpreting a lot of the turmoils I was experiencing along with my past according to what bipolar is and does. My family did the same thing.

However, just like someone who has diabetes doesn’t say he is diabetes, or AIDS, GERD, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, COPD, whatever illness you can conjure up, he HAS that illness. It’s something he becomes educated about, receives treatment for, and he learns how to manage and cope with it.

Mental illnesses are no different. I imagine them to be more challenging than many physical illnesses as they are much more abstract and hard to understand. For John, his recent diagnosis of bipolar may feel like bipolar is him at first, right at the core of his being, but it isn’t. It’s simply got a grip on him.

So please, keep that in mind. To label mental illness as not an illness is incredibly destructive, and so is labeling the afflicted as the illness. In time he or she will take ownership of it, manage it, and cope with it just like someone who has type 1 diabetes, say. Help him or her along by referring to the illness as something he or she has, instead. If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, tell yourself you have it, not that you are it!