When we’re most innocent and vulnerable, we sometimes latch on to the worst labels, then carry them with us wherever we go. These aren’t labels others gave us in jest, they’re the names we give ourselves through our pain….When you find yourself calling yourself by a name that just isn’t true, remember what God calls us—He calls us His beloved.
-Bob Goff, Live in Grace, Walk in Love, 19
For a long time I defined myself in terms of mental illness: that I was, first and foremost, a sick person who needed certain things (medication, therapy, a strict sleep schedule) in order to at least appear to function. And that diagnosis did serve some purposes; it obligated my insurance to pay for treatment and kept a particularly parasitic employer from requiring more than 14-hour workdays. (The fact that employers can demand such a massive chunk of their employees’ lives unless you have an ADA-covered diagnosis to protect you is a whole other issue. I think we tend to pathologize our needs, particularly in the workplace, because without legally binding documentation, employers too often ignore needs and boundaries and health.)
But the diagnosis also kept me in a box. I related to the world as a sick person, as someone who had to compensate because she had heavier baggage than a lot of other people. I felt guilty that my friends had to put up with so much more (drama, moodiness, angsty late-night texts) than a healthy person would have required — so I let them treat me badly, and I didn’t try to form many friendships with people I actually liked, respected, and admired, because I didn’t want them to realize how damaged and worthless I was. (Someone I did like, respect, and admire once told me, “You’re not a flake, but you want people to think you are so they lower their expectations of you.”)
As I packed on weight from medication, my own body became a constant, visible reminder of my sickness. Every time I looked in the mirror, what I saw reflected back was someone so broken that she couldn’t even get through her day without pills that made her fat and sucked away her energy and creativity.
And there’s another problem with defining yourself by a mental illness: The diagnostic criteria are so amorphous and subjective that every “expert” has a different opinion. I’ve gotten at least five different diagnoses, including two that I knew were wildly inaccurate (but when denial serves as confirmation, you don’t have much recourse to object).
And the latter have been actively harmful, not just because of ineffective medication and therapeutic approaches but because of what they said about me, because of who I must be if these labels applied. One of the misdiagnoses threw me into an existential crisis so severe that I considered suicide, because if this was who I was, if this was how I related to the world, then what kind of future could I possibly have? How could I ask anyone — family, friends, romantic partners — to be part of such a life, to engage with such a person? And the diagnosis was presented to me this way: not as a means to understand my health but as a referendum on who I was.
About six years ago, I decided to stop taking medication. (Note: I am not qualified and would not presume to offer medical advice to anyone else; this was a personal decision that required a lot of thought, research, and discussion with doctors, therapists, family, and close friends.) Not only did this turn out to be the right decision for me, but it freed me from thinking of myself as a sick person. Because I discovered that not only can I function without meds, but most of the time I function better without them.
And that realization called into question which of those diagnoses — if any — was accurate. Suddenly I could be a person who had rough days and struggled with depression but wasn’t qualitatively different than everyone else. I didn’t need to view myself through the lens of illness anymore, and that freed me to figure out who else I was, who I wanted to be.
As a spiritual practice claim and reclaim your primal identity as a beloved daughter or son of a personal Creator.
-Henri Nouwen, Home Tonight, reprinted in You Are the Beloved, p. 6