My Mental Illness Defines Me and That's OK

“You are more than your diagnosis,” my loved ones will say. “Don’t let your mental illness define you.”

At first, I never questioned the validity of their suggestion. But over time, it became clear that a well-meaning piece of information, paired with good intentions, could turn out to be a serious source of invalidation.

It’s tricky. You see, I have found that some people will often point out that when you have a physical ailment, like diabetes or cancer, you refer to yourself as having a disease rather than being one (i.e. I have cancer versus I am cancer).

But I believe this logic doesn’t apply to mental health disorders for a simple reason: they literally affect everything in your life, and sometimes they can make you feel like they’re part of you.

For instance, although I started struggling with my mental health at the age of 14, here I am today, six years later, still depressed and unwell. Yes, I’ve made some progress since then, but I still grew up, during which time, my symptoms were still present.

When you’re a teenager, you begin to form your identity and embark on your quest for independence. Throughout my teenage years, I had an existential crisis, trying to answer the complicated question of, “Who am I?” And at the time, I was severely depressed and deeply suicidal. If you were to make a big pie chart of my life at the time, my symptoms would have filled up the thickest slice.

My mental illness affected the way I shaped my identity growing up. So how can I say it doesn’t define who I am when it affected the very core of my being? From my point of view, mood disorders are shitty because they affect the lens through which you view the world. Emotions color your world and perspective, therefore, sometimes it can be hard to separate yourself from your symptoms.

In my case, I know my mental illness touched every single part of my life. It affected the books I read, the movies I watched, the people I saw, my hobbies (or lack thereof), the quality of my academic papers, my performance at work, my physical health, my appetite, my sleep pattern, the activities I chose, my creative writing and so on. My mental illness affected my interactions with my parents, my relationships with my friends and the way I see myself.

Many times, my mental illness engulfed me completely. My symptoms became all-consuming, and at times, life-threatening. In short, my mental illness changed my experience of being human. Even now, when I look at my day-to-day schedule, I see that my treatment plan can be time-consuming: therapy appointments, peer support group, intake assessments, blood tests, trips to the pharmacy and so on.

Now, when people tell me, “You are more than your diagnosis,” it puzzles me. I understand where they’re coming from, and yet, sometimes I disagree. On the one hand, I find diagnoses to be validating. Receiving a diagnosis meant a lot to me because it took away a lot of the self-blame. It validated the idea that what I struggled with wasn’t “normal” and therefore I wasn’t making things up. I also found that receiving an accurate diagnosis was important and valuable because that diagnoses influenced my treatment decisions; like what kind of medications I would be taking — which can sometimes affect your mood, sleep, energy level and so on. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone likes to be put into rigid categories for a number of reasons, and I personally find that labels make me feel more like an object and less like a person. Diagnoses help and can bring relief, but only to a certain extent. I guess there are pros and cons to everything.

What bothers me about people saying that diagnoses aren’t that important is that sometimes, they can indeed have a significant impact on someone’s life. For instance, I recently got diagnosed with a personality disorder. That’s pretty defining, if you ask me. On top of that, there’s a stigma that comes with borderline personality disorder (BPD). People get treated differently, even among professionals in the mental health community. If you’re going to associate and tie my name to a label with a negative connotation — that’s pretty defining. And lastly, getting told the ways I manage my emotions and relationships are signs of a disorder, rather than the results of just being “me,” well, that could be upsetting for anybody.

The truth is, my struggles have shaped who I am today, and I don’t think that’s a good or bad thing. I can’t remember who I was before my mental illness because I became depressed at the same time I was attempting to create a “self.” There’s no going back to who I used to be. I don’t have a baseline — it’s like I’ve forgotten what life without mental illness feels like. And because my mental illness has been the center of my life for so long, I don’t know who I am without it. Just the idea of not being mentally ill can send me into an identity crisis.

On a final note, I just want to say that if I could go back in time and change things, I wouldn’t. My mental health struggles have taught me so much — about owning my struggles, about being grateful for my loved ones and about cultivating courage as well as resilience. Even if I’ve spent more than a hundred days in the psych ward this past year alone, I know that these hospitalizations were steps I needed to take in order to heal.

My mental illness has showed me the power of love, courage and connection. Because of my struggles, I am more compassionate, gentle and kind. I appreciate the little things and I don’t take any moment of happiness for granted.

Through my recovery, I have met some incredible people and cultivated relationships on a whole new emotional level. I have a better relationship with my parents, my friends and myself. I have learned the value of having a healthy mind, and I have learned to cherish my ability to read and write. I have seen the power of friendship and vulnerability, and I believe that because of my disorder, I have experienced things more deeply.

I lost myself in my mental illness, but I found myself there, too.

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Thinkstock photo via amoklv

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