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I Am More Than My Physical and Mental Illnesses

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“You are more than your addictions, health challenges and mental health issues.”

This is something my new therapist emphasized with me at the end of our first session together. At first, I was defensive when thinking about it.

Not to excuse what I’ve been doing, but in order of explanation, when, within the span of fewer than five years…

You figure out you are an addict … and then recognize you have addictions in two areas, not just the one previously recognized.

You are diagnosed with several new physical health conditions, not just those you’ve been dealing with your entire life.

You realize you have bipolar type 2 … and then learn you have a few more mental health conditions, not just those you’ve been dealing with your whole life.

It’s difficult not to focus on these things.

Any one of those three aforementioned areas would be hard for anyone to deal with in that time span. Having to learn and navigate what all this means, as in typical symptoms, life implications and treatments, is overwhelming enough. Then figuring out your symptoms, life implications and treatments is even more overwhelming.

Life added additional stress. During that time, I also had been dealing with a major life trauma, navigating how to live as a freelancer, helping my teenager become an adult and both she and my parents with their own physical and mental issues, nurturing a new relationship and trying to fulfill a childhood dream, it’s honestly no wonder I got caught up in it all.

After all, many of the diagnoses explained a lot about how I act and react, why I feel the way I do mentally and physically and they gave me communities of people who I could relate to in ways I couldn’t with “normies.”

But, my therapist was right. After pondering over it for several days, I realized I’ve done what I preach against in mental health advocacy: I believe you are not your condition.

There has been a move for a while now to change the language of how we talk about people with mental and physical issues to “people-first.” It’s a subtle change, but to me, it really does make a difference. I knew this shift in language and I’ve adopted it. After having to work at it at first, now it’s automatic for me to use this “people-first” way of speaking.

But, until my new therapist gave me that bit of insight, I didn’t realize I hadn’t used it for my own life. Like I said earlier, I have had good reasons for being wrapped up in focusing on those issues for the last few years and so my life hasn’t been “myself-first, condition-last.” I have been my diagnoses.

It is always a major revelation when I realize how one of my issues explains something I do or feel. For example, the reason I have insomnia at times and have no problems with it other times is due to being hypomanic or not. It was a big deal when I found out the sinus issues I’ve dealt with for years and couldn’t ever effectively treat are a result of having fibromyalgia. It’s important for me to know I’m an addict with an eating disorder and no amount of willpower will make me lose weight  — that I need support in ways even the best weight loss program can’t manage.

But, in the process of learning about all of these new diagnoses and how they impact my life, I lost who I am. When I am really confident about my images, I chalk it up to being manic, not that my photography skills actually have improved. When I’m hurting, my first thought is it’s the fibro and not that I worked out hard the day before, which is something I should celebrate. When I want to avoid social situations, I tend to focus on the fact I have social anxiety and not that I have been complimented on my interviewing skills as a journalist, so there must be a social part in me somewhere.

Again, it wasn’t a horrible thing to learn about myself through the filter of all of these diagnoses, conditions and disorders. It’s been good to know more about why I am the way I am. However, it’s really time to move on.

One of the first decisions I made, to distance myself a little more from these issues, was to stop going to one of the addiction support groups I have attended every Thursday night for almost three years. As a disclaimer, I’m not advocating everyone do that — I’m just discussing my journey. For me, it just made sense.

I still am going to two support groups a week, one focused on each addiction. I still have numerous doctor’s appointments scheduled to keep trying to figure out ways to combat my physical problems. I still am working closely with both a psychiatrist and a therapist to help with the mental health side.

If I’m going to become more than my issues, then I need to focus on other parts of my life. Though that support group only takes about an hour of time each week, I could take that hour and use it to practice sign language, as becoming fluent is a childhood dream of mine. Though the virtual conferences that are now very abundant due to COVID-19 are helpful, right now it’s more important I use that time to rediscover what I enjoy doing.

My therapist asked me what I do for fun. I honestly don’t know. Nothing is fun anymore. Though I realize that’s part of my mental health issues (not enjoying things you used to love), it’s now time to not just automatically blame that on depression, but instead try to find things I enjoy doing. I need to actively put forth the effort to find out more about the playful part of myself.

I’m not sure how to do this. Giving up one support group a week and skipping some conferences won’t make a big difference if I don’t use that time to learn who I really am — not just about my issues.

My goal is to once more learn to enjoy life … to live again.

Unsplash image by Maria Lupan

Originally published: April 24, 2021
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