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What I Want to Tell Anyone Who Puts Their 'Mental Illness' Label First

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When I was in my early 20s — before my diagnosis — I identified as a woman, as a social worker, as an aunt, sister, daughter, wife, liberal, etc.

Then, with my original diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my entire view of myself changed. There was a shift inside of me. I had to make mental illness part of who I was because now I had a 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’s where psychotherapy comes in. I adjusted without therapy, though. 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).

But if I had worked with a good and ethical therapist at the time of my diagnosis, I might have not lived for two 20 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. I might 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 20 years, keeping my illness a secret from the majority of people in our lives. It’s possible that I over-identified with being mentally ill, and was ashamed of so much of myself because of it. I worry about people over-identifying with their illness, who see their illness as the biggest part of how they define themselves, living 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 I believe to tie yourself up in your struggles first instead of your strengths can hinder your happiness.

I’m an old-timer where mental illness is concerned, and I’ve learned a thing or two. 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.

I believe we should take a list of all the things we 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.

A version of this post originally appeared on A Journey With You.

Originally published: February 14, 2016
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