I’ve heard lots of people say I shouldn’t make my mental illness part of my personality, or let it define me. That I should focus on other things. Even more often I see people frustrated with my insistence on labels. “You’re more than the diagnosis,” or “one word can’t define you,” or my favorite “why are you letting people box you in?” It seems like a lot of people think that embracing your mental illness means living in negativity.
I don’t think it would surprise many people to know one of the things I identify most strongly as is mentally ill. I bristle when people tell me this means I’m limiting myself, being negative or letting the mental illness “win” in some fashion. Here’s the truth; accepting and paying attention to an important fact about myself is not negative or limiting. My mental illness has a big impact on my life. To say that it isn’t an important and integral part of who I am is to lie.
But more than that, mental illness is not exclusively negative. Yeah, depression and anxiety have screwed me over more than once, but my anxiety makes me a truly badass worker. My depression makes me compassionate and my borderline personality disorder makes me empathetic. Taking away those elements of my personality doesn’t just take away things that hurt me, but also irreparably changes me and the awesome person I am. This is a basic tenet of neurodiversity, and I strongly stand by the fact that if my brain wasn’t the weird place it is, I would not be depressed, but I also wouldn’t be as badass as I am.
Beyond all of the philosophical stuff, there’s also the idea that in terms of things I have to pay attention to, my mental illness is bigger than any other element of me. Just as I would with any other chronic illness, I have to take my meds, pay attention for changes, see my doctor periodically and continually take care of myself with exercise, self-care, socialization and writing to keep my mood up and my brain in a place of rationality and stability. If there was another element of my personality that took up hours every day of my life, then maybe I would identify more strongly with that. But there isn’t, so mental illness it is because in reality it’s what affects me.
Understanding that a huge part of who I am involves the care I have to take with my own mind isn’t negative. It’s not giving in to anything. It’s not ignoring or downplaying the great things I do. It’s recognition of reality. Mental illness is a huge part of my life. It affects everything from how I dress (thanks eating disorder) to how I eat (seriously, thanks eating disorder) to how I exercise (once again, eating disorder) to how I think (at least this one’s depression and anxiety) and how I feel (woohoo BPD!). It affects my relationships, it affects what I consider fun and it affects how I socialize. How is that not important? Why should I feel ashamed of an aspect of myself because it happens to be something that oftentimes is a challenge? I cannot think of a single other identity that affects all the elements of my self so strongly.
So yes, I will continue putting “mentally ill” at the top of my list of self-identifiers, along with nerd, writer and social justice warrior, because these are the things I pay attention to each and every day. It is healthy and important for me to include my mental illness on that list. If I don’t pay attention to it, then there’s every likelihood I will end up in the nasty depressed place that’s truly dangerous. But more than that, I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t incredibly important because it’s supposedly negative, or involves stigma. That is letting the mental illness win.
My bio will continue to read Olivia, crying-face depressed sometimes, writer extraordinaire, weirdo. Can’t stop, won’t stop.
Follow this journey on We Got So Far to Go.