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Why I No Longer Identify With Mental 'Illness'

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I’ve been “mentally ill” for my entire life. I was raised in an abusive environment and developed maladaptive survival skills from the day I was born. I felt separate from my peers immediately once we were introduced. I felt broken and irreparable all through elementary school. By middle school, I was convinced I was something else, made of something different than all the people around me. Anytime I made an attempt to express this separate-ness, this broken-ness, I was met with confusion, prayers and platitudes. Nobody knew what it was, nobody knew what to do, and this reinforced my truth at the time: I am broken and different and wrong.

• What is PTSD?

Once I finally identified my symptoms as mental health issues, my diagnostic process was similar to a lot of trauma survivors I’ve heard from. First, they claimed it was just anxiety and depression. I thought I might have a sprinkle of psychosis in the mix, because anxiety and depression didn’t seem to cover it all, but I wasn’t the doctor. Then I discovered borderline personality disorder (BPD). I wasn’t diagnosed with BPD when I first heard about it, but the description matched me so well. It explained why I felt othered, why I reacted the way I did and why my whole world felt like it might end every single day. Along the way to a BPD diagnosis, I was also told I have agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disordersocial anxiety disorder and a dissociative disorder. Finally, I felt like my lived experience made sense. I was broken! And now I had the documentation to prove it.

After discovering that I had such a collection of mental illnesses, I spent a lot of my personal time researching them. For so long I had no way of understanding myself, now I had this lead and I followed it as far as it would go. I had no idea where this path would eventually take me. I read the DSM-5, I read scientific studies and articles, I read personal accounts from people living with these disorders, I bought books about mental health and mental illness, and along the way I learned CBT, DBT and many accompanying skill sets. After years of educating myself in an effort to understand my own mind, I came to a conclusion about mental health and mental illness. Although I wasn’t sure what the alternative might be, I started to become increasingly uncomfortable with what qualifies someone as “mentally ill” and what doesn’t, what constitutes a diagnosis and what doesn’t. I kept studying.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), we the mentally ill are categorized by our symptoms. This sounds logical enough. However, in the DSM we are not typically categorized by our lived experiences, but rather by how our symptoms impact those around us and our ability to function in this society. This can be incredibly misleading, as in my case, where my BPD symptoms were considered “stealth” or “quiet BPD,” because it is assumed that those with BPD disrupt the lives of those around them, and/or display obvious signs of dysfunction. These assumptions are dangerous as they allow professionals to misdiagnosis too easily. It is also simply a harmful stereotype that leads people to believe that those with BPD cannot have healthy relationships or have a thriving life. Many, if not most, of the diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses follows this pattern: focusing on deficits that other people would notice, instead of focusing on the inner experience of the person actually struggling. For me, this felt inadequate and incomplete.

This is where complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) comes into play. I have never been diagnosed with C-PTSD, but I believe it is the umbrella that covers all of my diagnoses. Complex-PTSD means that the trauma has been experienced over a longer period of time, or multiple times, rather than in an acute incident as in PTSD. Where BPD helped me understand my current reality, C-PTSD helps me put everything in perspective and understand how my current reality became what it is over time. Identifying my childhood experiences as genuinely traumatic has meant that I can now work to heal from this trauma. Additionally, identifying trauma as the root cause of my mental health issues gave me the next piece I needed to move forward in my studies: the concept of the MindBody.

MindBody acknowledges that our minds and our bodies cannot be separated from one another. We are intricately woven beings, our psychology and neurology tied directly into our cardiology, our immunology, our endocrinology. There are even scientifically confirmed links between gut health and mental health, where an imbalance in one affects the other. Therefore, there is no way to adequate to treat any health issue without treating mind and body at the same time, and unfortunately this is not how healthcare currently operates. However, when looking into and engaging with treatment for trauma, I quickly learned that if I wanted to succeed, I must engage with my physical body and reconnect mind with body. I am learning how to breathe fully after a lifetime of hypervigilance. I am having to relearn how to respond to touch, and to train my body that many different stimuli, locations or situations are not dangerous. I am also relearning how to respond to when actual danger is present to avoid freeze, flight or fawning trauma responses. Knowing I had to include my body in this relearning was very important for me, because I had already known logically, in my mind, that I was OK, I was safe, that nothing from my past could harm me. But it didn’t make a difference in the way my body reacted, until I learned how to work with mind and body in tandem.

Finding successes in connecting mind with body, as well as listening to the lived experiences of so many people diagnosed with mental illnesses, and juxtaposed against my readings of the DSM, I have come to the conclusion that we are not necessarily broken, sick people. Some of us are traumatized or hurt people, some of us are different or neurodivergent people, and a lot of us are both. Sometimes we were not provided the things we need to thrive or succeed in life, sometimes we develop ways of coping through our reality that later don’t work anymore, sometimes our position in this world combined with the brain we have makes life especially difficult for us. But that doesn’t make us broken. Our world is not yet designed for us, it doesn’t recognize our wholeness, our MindBody, our human-ness. We need to offer ourselves an abundance of grace and compassion, because I know so many of us are out here doing our best, and it doesn’t feel good enough. But it is good enough. I see you.

I hope we can move towards a world where distressing mental health symptoms are treated with compassion, where wholistic community and personal supports are always available when needed. I hope we can move towards a world where people with brains that are neurodivergent can be acknowledged and celebrated and offered both supports and opportunities that work for them. I hope we can move towards a world where physical healthcare and mental healthcare are no longer separated, and that treatments offered for any ailment would take all needs of the patient into account. Until the day we live in that world, I will still use the DSM and “mental illness” to categorize my symptoms and explain how I fit into this society. But I no longer identify with being “ill,” nor with the concept of brokenness.

I don’t know what I would call myself instead, maybe a survivor, maybe a healer, but the truth is I am just beginning to discover who I am beyond the trauma and the diagnostic labels. It’s the start of a whole new journey.

Getty image by Agsandrew

Originally published: September 1, 2021
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