Internalized racism is the closest term I can find for what I think happens to many people who are mentally ill. Most of us living with schizophrenia haven’t had the diagnosis all of our lives. I was twenty-eight before my first diagnosis. At twenty-eight, I already had an opinion on mentally ill people. At that age, I didn’t know anyone who was mentally ill (or at least openly mentally ill). I was frightened of people who showed symptoms of being psychotic –talking to voices, yelling, etc. Like many people, that was my idea of “crazy.” Of course, when I received my diagnosis, all the images in movies, music videos and all the characters in books, etc. that were a depiction of the mentally ill became internalized. I thought of myself as all the stereotypes, all the myths, etc.
I was ashamed of my diagnosis (which at first was bipolar). In fact, I kept looking up all the famous people who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder to find hope, to put myself among geniuses, to build my fragile self-esteem. Later, when I received the diagnosis of schizophrenia I was, even more, ashamed because like everyone else I had heard and believed that it was the “most severe of the mental illnesses – the worst of the worst – a lost cause.”
I prefer to be called a person with schizophrenia. I prefer that all people recognize the fact that I am a person before identifying me as a person with schizophrenia. I prefer this in the exact way that people with other diseases identify – someone with cancer, a person with diabetes, etc. There is a kind of movement among people who have schizophrenia to call themselves, schizophrenics. That word hurts my heart and burns my ears. I am not a schizophrenic. I fight every day to be defined by things besides my illness. I am a woman. I am a wife, daughter, sister, friend, writer, etc. There are so many facets to my life, and I would hope that the very last way that people choose to identify me or know me as is a person with schizophrenia. It is an illness. I don’t want to be identified with that part of me that is the part I would get rid of, or cure if only I could.
But I don’t get to dictate the experience of others who have schizophrenia. I don’t even want to. I don’t want to silence the voices or the opinions of people who have the same illness as I do. In fact, I encourage people who want to write about, create, or produce something with a character that has a mental illness to include people with that mental illness in the process. We should be consulted about artwork, books, movies, etc. that depict us. We should have our say in how our experiences and illness is portrayed to the public. In essence, we should be allowed to write our narrative.
So, with people who want to be called, schizophrenic, I am uncertain if it is pride they feel in their diagnosis – a way to identify that they are not ashamed of (in which case, that is great for them, but doesn’t work for me), or if they have internalized the messages that come daily from the media and from artists of all kinds suggesting that we are our illness. I don’t know the answer to this, and I assume there are some who have internalized negative messages, and others who are proud.
I do know that although I prefer one way over the other, my way is neither right nor wrong. People get to ask to be addressed or call themselves whatever they want. But I do hope that people who want to be called, schizophrenic don’t see themselves as their illness before they see the complexity of all the other things they are, but if they do, it isn’t my place to tell them to do things differently. I only hope it doesn’t create an atmosphere for me that I find insulting and limiting. I am so much more than a diagnosis, and I work hard for the world to see it and know it. I hope calling people, schizophrenic doesn’t become the norm – it doesn’t work at all for me.