I have a new post on Psych Central. The link is here. It would be great if you would pop over there and give my other blog some love. Thanks!
Please check out my introductory essay for my new series on Drunken Boat. The series will cover mental illness in art.
The title is, Bright Lights and Dark Corners
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.
I am “friends” with over a thousand writers (close to two thousand) on Facebook. Most of them write well-written posts that can keep me reading on and off all day. Many of them also write very loving and kind little snippets of poetic prose. I also see many loving and kind quotes used on Facebook by people who don’t identify as writers. These types of posts receive many likes, shares and comments.
The other side of that is the comment sections of articles posted online. There tend to be so many people that are willing to say some of the most hateful things in the comments sections. Arguments, ignorance, and meanness also present themselves online when politics or any big social issues like immigration, equality, the presidential election, gun control, etc. are written about.
If I were to take social media at face value, I would say we are living in paradise and hell at the same time. On one side, people are all loving and kind, and on the other side, people are hateful and cruel.
I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, though. I think the people who write beautiful messages about being kind and loving probably find it difficult always to be kind and loving to annoying drivers, people who cut in line at the grocery store, and possibly even their partners or children. And those people who say hateful and cruel things about whole groups of people or leave nasty comments on articles about people being “ugly” or “stupid” or whatever else they can think up are probably not saying things like that to their coworkers, partners or strangers in the street. It is possible they even love someone and treat that person with tenderness and respect.
I spend a lot of time in the online world, and I am starting to think in the New Year of cutting back my participation in social media. I don’t think I get an accurate view of people when I am judging them by words they post online. Someone can write the most beautiful words and be a selfish, self-centered, or inconsiderate person. Just because someone can put beautiful thoughts into words or post beautiful quotes doesn’t mean their heart is in the same place. The same goes for those haters. It is possible they are young kids who think they are funny. It is possible they are in a difficult living situation that has them frustrated to the point of acting out. It is possible they just lost their job, feel like they are friendless or have declining health and are bitter about it.
I have put a lot of time and energy into social media over the past five years. It has influenced the way I see many people and society as a whole. Social media is just too easy – too easy to be loving, too easy to be kind, too easy to be hateful, too easy to be a bully. Real life is much harder but so much more important. If I go into the hospital none of my social media “friends” are going to show up in my room and sit with me when I need it the most. My face-to-face friends would, though. My face-to-face friends are wonderfully imperfect and complicated. They have good moods and bad moods, and good days and bad days. They love, and they get angry. That is all something that can be hidden on social media to create an image someone wants to portray to the world.
I simply needed a reminder this cold January morning that the online world is full of what people want to show to the world, not necessarily the truth. I need to spend more time in 2016 looking people in the eye and having conversations with them that include body language and tone of voice. I need something more authentic than words on a screen. I need to be either renewed by the beauty of the human spirit or saddened by our meanness. I think I will find that life, real life, is somewhere in between and can’t be easily manipulated by the desire to create a character on a screen.