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What's in a Mental Health Diagnosis?

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When I was little, I was informally diagnosed with depression and possible bipolar disorder. As my symptoms grew increasingly more severe, the uncertainty regarding my diagnosis did as well. One day I would seem more schizophrenic, others more obsessive, others more unpredictable and impulsive and on and on. I went through two days of psychological testing to determine my diagnosis, amongst other things. The psychologist reviewing me said she tentatively thought I had bipolar disorder. I was content with that. I began to see a specialist in bipolar disorder. He told me I didn’t have bipolar disorder, which irritated me.

Why did that bother me?

It didn’t bother me because I wanted to be bipolar. It bothered me because I wanted to point at something to explain why I was falling apart. I wanted to know why I was different, to justify that to myself and others. I wanted a label explaining that I did the things I did because they were on this list of symptoms found on WebMD. I had symptoms of everything, and that only frustrated me more and increased my desire to fit into a box. I began to feel like I was an aberration — that everyone else was one or two diagnoses, succinct and exact. Everyone else was a straight line and I was a squiggle.

Every time I wound up in a new provider’s office they would ask my diagnosis. I would babble out a list of symptoms, feeling embarrassed. While later they would say the classification didn’t matter, it felt like it did when they were looking at me and asking me to give a single word to something that was so much more complex than that. After a while in the medical system I learned that diagnoses only serve to inform insurance companies what they are paying for and why and also to help providers get to know you. While I felt (and let me say, still feel) foolish trying to condense my world into a few words, I’ve come to realize that the doctors don’t expect that — they just want a place to start.

I found that once I was finally and accurately diagnosed with both bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder and OCD, it didn’t make much of a difference in my day-to-day life. My brain hadn’t changed — it was still just as complex. It was still a squiggle, though I felt like less of an oddity. As far as dealing with other people, I found that the stigma stayed thick and the disorder stayed unclear to them; they don’t really know what diagnoses mean anyway. I’m trying to change that and create greater understanding, but until we get there, it helps to know that perception of my diagnoses has nothing to do with me and much more to do with societal fear and ignorance. I often say I hope someday I can say my diagnosis out loud without worrying about making people scared or uncomfortable. More than that, I hope someday someone with my symptoms could look at all the possible labels and not feel the need to narrow it down for their own and others’ consumption.

Photo by drimenaim on Unsplash

Originally published: September 24, 2020
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