Do You Remember Life Before Mental Illness?

March 21, 2013 Natalie Jeanne Champagne

I know. I know. You might be thinking, "Is she serious? I did not lose my entire memory!" Yes, I am serious and I will work to explain why.

Remembering Life Before Diagnosis of Mental Illness

When you have been diagnosed with a mental illness your memory is affected so you might not remember your life before your mental illness diagnosis.I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 12 and so it's likely my experience is different than yours--the average age of onset typically being later. But I sort of remember. I remember being a kid and riding my bike. I remember cooking with my mom and making a mess. And then I remember that despite these 'normal' experiences, I was still unwell. My point? Sometimes, life before our mental illness diagnosis is unstable. Mental illness lurks around before it kicks your ass into high gear.

That said, some of us had a perfectly stable life before the diagnosis. Everything went as it should. . .And then we became sick and our world shattered. Either way--and with many variables in between--we do remember life before mental illness. However, how much we recall is as different for each of us as our unique road to recovery.

Remembering Life After The Diagnosis

Life after the diagnosis is scary. That word does the experience little justice. If you have lived with mental illness I suspect you do not need further explanation.

In my experience, life before the diagnosis and the memories I recall are equally frightening. But this is not the case for all of us living with mental illness. I have spoken to people about this topic and many of them tell me about a pretty great life before: a stable job, family and friends, hobbies. And then the illness stole them away. These people, from what I have been told, remember life before with clarity. They yearn to find it again.

So, I question: is it better to have struggled, to understand some of the symptoms, before diagnosis? It could be argued that we then have some experience and the prospect of knowing we can get better is some sort of fantastic--even if we cannot move from the couch!

Or, is it better to recall a 'normal' life? A life that can be compared to the onset of illness?

Final Thoughts. . .

I believe that memories are important. Remembering when life was going well pushes us to recover. On the flip-side, I also believe that memories of when we were sick can be damaging and make recovery more difficult. If this is the case, therapy often can help us work through this.

In the end, on our journey to find peace and stability, creating new memories is what matters most. How do you feel about the topic?

APA Reference
Jeanne, N. (2013, March 21). Do You Remember Life Before Mental Illness?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, October 4 from

Author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne

September, 5 2013 at 9:52 pm

I know this is an old article but I so appreciate it. Especially at this moment...right now.
Immediately after my diagnosis, I could not think of the future or the past. I was stuck in the present which was scary, confusing, humiliating, and just plain miserable. Of course I was also going through a major depressive episode so admittedly, it was probably skewed, but still...
In hindsight - no, life before diagnosis wasn't all puffy clouds and rainbows, but it was at least manageable - I could hold a job, go on vacation, enjoy friends and relationships, enjoy new people, and rack up some good times. In a sense, ignorance was bliss because I wasn't consumed by my illness and if things were really bad as they inevitably are on occassion - especially when you are untreated - I could truly embrace the phrase "this too shall pass" and move on. When a name was given to it, everything changed and not for the best. Quite frankly, I feel more stuck now than ever before. Possibly because I don't know how to navigate my way out of this maze, and possibly because I hate it and really don't want to. More often than not, I think it almost isn't worth it.
I reconnected with an old, old friend, and unbeknownst to her, I was really struggling. So grateful to have reconnected, not because she offered up advice or had comforting words to say, but simply because she was present. We talked about good times, and memories flooded back. I could suddenly remember ME before my first depressive episode - and I was a quietly independent and confident gal, sensitive, and kinda studious, with a lot of curiosity and questions about the world. And I discovered a lot of awesome qualities about her that I never really noticed before - like her love of friends, family and her boyfriend; her desire to honor her parents who passed away, her quirky sense of humor that really makes me laugh (and boy, do I need it!).
So, life before bipolar was good because I liked myself. Undiagnosed, I slowly learned to hate myself. And now...?
I guess I have my good memories for now. And a really happy, loveable dog that I adore. And my prized music collection that seems to be the only thing that continually evolves. And a family and culture that is both hard and easy on me. But I am broke, broken, and not sure if I am on the mend or not. I used to love the phrase, "we shall see" but now I am afraid of it.

Sandra L. Flaada
March, 26 2013 at 5:38 pm

I was diagnosed with depression and they added PTSD and then they added DID presenting in 3 alter personalities. I was 56 years old when this happened and am now 62. All my life I have felt different. I hated myself. I thought I was crazy, if someone gave me a complement, a voice in my head said Yeah, but you don't know me. To everyone else my life looked normal and I would say I "acted normal." When I began therapy I started to remember what happened when I was young. I didn't want to remember, but in order to heal I had to. I had to go through everything I remembered and deal with the pain in order to put it where it belonged so it wouldn't keep me from living the best life I could. Remembering my life before diagnosis has made my life after diagnosis more authentic. I have learned to recognize when my alters are upset or helping me live my life. My diagnosis has kept me alive, it's better to know the truth and understand all the confusion I lived.

March, 26 2013 at 10:17 am

Well, my life roughly divides into two halves--20 years before diagnosis and 20 years since. I remember (or at least I think I remember with accuracy) that first half, especially as my ethics, creativity, and personality have remained pretty much the same. There are bad parts too--like remembering how much I loved grapefruit and grapefruit juice, which are no-nos on my current regimen. I remember the freedom of not taking medications regularly and how I didn't appreciate it then. I remember being able to skate by on maybe 1/8 as much water as I need now. But in those great words of 21st century wisdom, it is what it is.

March, 25 2013 at 8:53 am

Nice article. I am really hoping you guys will go an article with research data about whether Bipolar can change a person's brain so that they begin to have ADD, but did not used to. I was completely normal until age 34, a very happy and non-manic person. I have had so many repeated bouts of untreatable depression that they call it Biploar even though I do not get manic or even hypo-manic. It's frustrating when I read descriptions of Bipolar because I don't have the other "pole". But now I have a very hard time focusing, cognitive and memory problems, etc. and this did not begin until about age 50. I'm really wondering how common this is, for people to sort of "get ADD" as they are aging... I do know that ADD is by definition congenital.

Ernie Richards
March, 25 2013 at 4:28 am

I am 50 and was diagnosed only two years ago. I find it hard to accurately recall many aspects of my life before my diagnosis.
When I mention things about family events or activities to my family they usually tell me that they don't remember it the way I do or they tell me that it ever happened. So now I don't know what to think about my memories.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
March, 25 2013 at 7:13 am

Hi, Ernie:
I understand this. Sometimes people explain things, situations and events I was part of, and I can't remember them! I suppose it is a blessing and a curse. Make new memories--life will make them for you as you live it.
Thanks for the comment,

March, 24 2013 at 3:08 am

I believe understanding a life before the onset is an by far the most important factor for learning to adjust to your disorder. To quote my high school psych teacher, "if you know you're crazy then you're not crazy." Differentiating between when your symptoms are manifesting and when it's really your own thoughts and actions is vital for progressing past the "denial" stage and quickly learning to adapt and create acceptable triggers. When my disorder fully developed I was very aware of each symptom developing month after month.As all of us have experienced, I was scared, confused and alone. It wasn't until I went back to the hospital and spoke to a psych, laying all my previous life events on the table, that we were able to discern the truth of my onset. After that I used my recollection of my previous habits, behaviors and thoughts to separate what was me and what was the disorder. I don't believe bipolar disorder is always as random as people believe it to be, so a great factor in learning coping mechanisms is to also develop a deeper understanding of possible occurrences may influence you on an emotional level. I believe it makes you virtually a supercharged sensitive individual than before onset, so accepting your old memories as well as your new experiences will help you into a stage of clarity pass the point of confusion, depression and denial.

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