A diagnosis has the potential to hinder, validate, exclude, or liberate someone. Here, Ann-Marie D'Arcy Sharpe reflects upon how her diagnosis of bipolar disorder has impacted her life.
I’ve been struggling with my mental health since I was a pre-teen. For years I wondered what was "wrong with me".
As I got older, my parents and I fought for answers but got nowhere. I was desperate for a diagnosis and for the treatment I needed. I was desperate for a doctor to take the time to really listen to me and to take me seriously, despite my young age.
"Knowledge really was power in my case".
A diagnosis didn’t come until I was in my mid-twenties. After seeking a diagnosis for so many years, did it make a difference? The short answer to that question is yes, it made a huge difference. The majority of that difference was positive. I’ll explain why.
Having a name for what I was going through
Finally having a name for what I had been experiencing was a huge relief. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d known that I needed help and I had been right. I felt validated and understood. I felt like this was a breakthrough, that I was finally going to get somewhere and turn my life around with the right support. I was right.
Accepting that this was forever
Of course, the diagnostic process wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Being told that I had a condition which I was going to be with for my whole life was scary and overwhelming. It took me a while to come to terms with it.
In fact, when the word ‘bipolar’ was first mentioned I fought against it.
I battled with myself internally, convincing myself that there was no way I could have bipolar disorder. I told my loved ones that the doctors must be wrong. I even told my psychologist at the time that they were incorrect.
However, once I started to come to terms with the idea, I realised that the symptoms reflected my experience. I knew deep down that this was the answer I had been seeking.
There have been many times in the past that I have acted out of character. I’ve regularly felt as though I had no control of my behaviour or my emotions. I felt extremely guilty and ashamed afterwards and could not fathom why I would do such things.
Getting a diagnosis allowed me to see that this wasn’t my fault. I was able to release the guilt that I had been carrying around with me for years.
Getting the treatment I needed
As I had hoped, getting the right diagnosis lead to the right treatment. That treatment has changed my life in ways that I didn’t think were possible. I have a medication regime which helps me to keep my mood as stable as possible. Through therapy and interacting with some wonderful mental health professionals, I now have the tools I need to proactively manage my bipolar disorder.
Of course, living with bipolar disorder means that I’m not going to be stable all the of the time. I still have depressive and hypomanic episodes, but they are far less often and more manageable. I have crisis plans in place so I can deal with episodes when they happen.
Learning how to manage my illness
Once I had a name for what I had been going through I was able to learn about it. I did my own research and found out anything and everything I could. Knowledge really was power in my case. The more I learnt, the more I discovered ways to improve my day-to-day life and to thrive despite my illness. I’ve learnt how to help myself and to recognise triggers, making it easier for me to know when to ask for help in advance.
(Sometimes) being taken more seriously by medical professionals
Having a diagnosis has had an impact on how I have been treated by medical professionals.
I’ve been taken more seriously by most mental health professionals I’ve seen since my diagnosis. Pre-diagnosis I was almost always dismissed, overlooked, and disregarded. I was surprised by how big a difference having a formal label to my symptoms has made to how my difficulties have been received. Of course, regardless of whether of someone has a diagnosis or not, they should always be taken seriously. If I had been listened to earlier perhaps I may have had fewer years of suffering.
On the other hand, my mental health diagnosis has meant I have been taken less seriously by doctors concerning my physical health.
I have fibromyalgia and arthritis, and I’ve been lucky to see some doctors who have been helpful and very understanding. However, the majority have dismissed my physical symptoms as being "probably part of your bipolar disorder" or "probably because you’re having an episode".
While I understand the connection between body and mind (mental illness can make chronic pain symptoms worse) and the theory of somatisation, this wasn’t what doctors were referring to. They were implying that my physical symptoms were "all in my head". Thankfully, my GP is someone I trust and he has been wonderful at getting me the help I need for all aspects of my health.
- See more: Do you identify as having a disorder, or as having survived something?
- See more: "No one should be shamed for trying to understand what is affecting them": A defence of self-diagnosis
I’m more me than I was before
It’s tempting to say that I’m still the same person I was before my diagnosis and that it’s just a label. Of course, fundamentally that’s true. A word doesn’t change who I am as a person. But I feel more me now than I ever was before, due to the treatment and the self-management skills that I now have because of my diagnosis.
Before I had that treatment, bipolar disorder had taken over my life. Much of the time I was either depressed or hypomanic. I spent a lot of time acting and feeling out of character - my life didn’t reflect who I really was. My real personality didn’t really shine through. Now I am in control instead of my bipolar disorder. Now I would say that I'm the "most me" I've ever been because my mental illness is well managed. The label of bipolar disorder has freed me rather than pigeonholed me. It’s enabled me to live the life I want, to be happy, and to be who I truly am.
Even though we shouldn’t have to fight for the healthcare we deserve, sometimes that is a reality. In my experience, the fight is well worth it in the end.
Read more of Ann-Marie's blogs:
- Creating mental health crisis support plans for schoolchildren
- Navigating Bipolar Disorder has made my marriage stronger - but having my boundaries respected is invaluable
- "I thought that there was something wrong with me or I was just a bad person"
- The diagnostic process of Bipolar Disorder: a patient’s perspective (Premium Content)