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How do you identify?

When I was in my early twenties, before my diagnosis, I identified as a woman, as a social worker, as an aunt, sister, daughter, wife, liberal, etc.

I would say the three main groups that made up my identity were as a woman, wife, and social worker. My original diagnosis as someone with bipolar disorder, made my whole view of myself change. There was a shift inside of me. I had to make mental illness a part of who I was because I now had that label.

Was it the biggest part of who I was? Did it influence or outweigh the rest of my identity?  I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I think the way the medical establishment gives out a diagnosis and then expects you to come up with a way of reorganizing your identity to include the new label is often cruel.

I guess that is where psychotherapy comes in. I adjusted without therapy, though. I had a unethical experience with a therapist that led to my first episode of psychosis, and I certainly wasn’t going to go back and try that again. In fact, I haven’t been in psychotherapy since before my diagnosis (with the exception of a few sessions with a therapist while I was psychotic eight years ago).

If I had worked with a good and ethical therapist at the time of my diagnosis, I might not have lived for twenty years in silence ashamed of revealing my illness. I might have been able to see my diagnosis as it is, a disease like any other, and I may have developed the confidence and self-esteem necessary to live openly as someone with a mental illness.

Instead, I hobbled along with my husband in the dark for nearly twenty years, keeping my illness a secret from the majority of people in our lives. It is possible that I over-identified with being mentally ill and was ashamed of so much of myself.

I worry about people over-identifying with their illness – having their illness be the biggest part of how they define themselves – seeing their lives through a lens of a diagnosis instead of thousands of other wonderful things.

I try not to identify too much with my illness now. I try to identify with things like being a woman, being a partner, being a writer, being a student. I put all of these things before having schizophrenia.

I read blogs and articles written by people with a mental illness every day, and I see it all the time, the primary way that some people define themselves is as a mentally ill person. There is nothing wrong with living without shame, but to tie yourself up in your struggles first instead of your strengths can hinder your happiness. I am an old timer where mental illness is concerned, and I have learned a thing or two, and if I could give people a bit of advice to have the chance at the best life, I would say search and find those things that make you happy and identify with them first. Be a painter. Be a writer. Be a poet. Be a musician. Be an accountant. Be a mother. Be a father. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be a friend. Be a partner.

Make a list of all the things you are and at the very end tack on the label, schizophrenia or bipolar, or anxiety disorder, or depressed.  Make your mental illness the very least of the ways you identify. You are so much more than a diagnosis, and you have to prove it to yourself before anyone else will believe you.