Owning the Label of “Mentally Ill”

I wanted to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: how we, and those around us, deal with mental health issues, along with the stigma and complications that label brings. It’s a subject I’ve been exploring in my own life, as well as in my book The Other Place (which has a schizophrenic main character, and came out TODAY!!)

Background on me, for those new to my blog: I’m a neurodiverse person. Every time I go into the psych doc, it seems like they diagnose me with a new letter of the alphabet. Pretty soon they’re going to have to make up new letters, just to diagnose me with them. My main diagnoses are PTSD and Bipolar I (or II, depending on whom you ask, but since I sometimes go totes whackadoodle, I’d probably say I).

It’s only recently I’ve discovered that I don’t have to call myself “mentally ill” (or “nutball” or “whackadoodle”)—I can call myself “neurodiverse”. I think that term fits a lot better, and feels better. Illness is bad, but diversity is something we should be proud of.

The problem is that we as a society don’t typically see neurodiversity in the same light as we see other types of diversity. Neurodiversity is something to be hidden or cured. It’s something to “rise above” and “be successful in spite of” (indeed, some people still see racial, cultural, religious and sexual diversity in the same light, but we should try our hardest to forget those sorts of people, at least for a few blissful moments before Trump opens his mouth again). And sure, there are certain symptoms that go along with being a neurodiverse person that most of us in that category do want some help dealing with or rising above. But, mostly, the impetus should be on society to realize that neurodiverse people aren’t going to change, and shouldn’t have to change.

I’ve spent a lot of my life denying and trying to escape my diagnoses, along with the stigma, danger, and (often) horrible and ineffective treatments that come with them. It’s only recently I’ve realized that there isn’t really something “wrong” with me, and that perhaps it’s society that needs to change in some ways, and not me.

Society has a long way to go with regard to understanding mental illness. Having certain diagnoses on your record can prevent you from getting certain jobs (or any jobs, if you’re open about it like I am online, because employers tend to stalk you before hiring). A record of mental illness can cause you trouble with the law, can affect the quality of your medical treatment even for conditions unrelated to mental health, and a bunch of other things.

Letting myself be diagnosed didn’t really seem worthwhile, because, let’s face it: a lot of treatments for mental health conditions aren’t very effective, and not much progress has been made in making them so in the last few decades. A lot of the treatments don’t make me feel better; sometimes they actually make me feel worse, at least in the short-term, and/or can have long-term negative health effects. It’s always a trade-off, and it sometimes doesn’t seem like a net benefit. So, every time a doctor has tried to slap a label on me, shower me with shitty pills, or put me in therapy, I’ve gone to another doctor or just quit treatment altogether.

I recently had a pretty big breakdown, though, so I’m back in treatment again. I’m struggling to make it work this time, for a couple big reasons. One is that I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can see what effect my mental health was having on my life, and that perhaps I could do better if I took care of myself. Another reason is that I’m ready to accept my diagnoses, and deal with all the fallout that happens from owning the label of “mentally ill”.

What made me ready to own the label was meeting my friend Phoenix, who has schizophrenia. He is hands-down one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and interesting people I’ve ever met. If he can be so incredibly awesome, then I figured maybe I wasn’t so bad, either. Maybe it is society that has the problem, and not us.

I’m also ready to accept the label of “mentally ill” out of a sense of obligation. I can pass for reasonably sane on good days. I can speak fairly coherently about my experiences with psychosis and mental illness in general. But Phoenix, as awesome as he is, doesn’t have much of a voice in society at large. I understand the turn of his mind, but a lot of people just think he’s a ranting lunatic and don’t stick around to find out he’s not. They’re angered or frightened by his behavior. They think he’s on drugs. They abuse, exploit, and ignore him. He’s been beaten into a coma for trying to be friendly (seriously), and has been arrested for standing in his own yard yelling about cow-worshiping vegans (long story). He was almost shot by police during a psychotic break, even though he was unarmed. And he and I have gotten kicked out of so many places just for being unobtrusively weird.

So, I feel the need to speak up and be proud, not just for myself, but for him, and for people like us everywhere.

It’s not easy to be proud a lot of the time, though. Having a mental health diagnosis hits you in two ways: it changes how you look at yourself, and it changes how society sees you. Those two things can also affect each other, so it becomes sort of a feedback loop.

Getting the correct diagnosis can help you to understand yourself better, and why you feel and react in certain ways. That can lift some of your heavy burden of guilt, shame, and self-recrimination, so that you can go about changing or dealing with those behaviors in a more constructive way. Having a diagnosis can also help those close to you recognize your behaviors for what they are, and respond to them in a healthier and more appropriate manner.

However, a diagnosis can also bring a new level of shame, and cause a different kind of inappropriate and unhealthy backlash from society.

People are more open about their mental health problems now than they were in the past, so you can find some very supportive friends if you start talking about your experiences. You also get a lot of pity, though. Pity isn’t what most people are looking for when they talk about their mental problems: they’re looking for understanding, for a way that they can fit into society and be accepted.

Pity, however, is better than the fear, anger, or condescension a lot of people display if you talk about your diagnosis.

Like I said before, I usually pass for reasonably sane. Sometimes, though, I don’t. I don’t usually realize it when it’s happening, but I behave pretty oddly sometimes. I’ve lost friends and loved ones because of it. I’ve been told to “just stop acting that way”, to “get over myself”, and to “grow up.” I’ve been told I’m attention-seeking. I’ve had people say, “Everyone’s crazy, but most of us don’t have to put it on full display.”

Here’s my answer to that: everyone is an ignorant dickhole in some ways, but most of us try not to put it on full display.

Sanity is definitely a spectrum. I have a pretty wide view of sanity, because pretty much everyone has some pretty kooky habits, paranoias, anxieties and beliefs. But I have intimate experience with that ethereal border over which be mental dragons; the line which, once crossed, puts you in the territory of bona-fide insane. I’ve been there, and I’ve witnessed others in that place. It’s not a place most of us choose to go. It can be terrifying, frightening, embarrassing and dangerous, not just because psychotic people are sometimes apt to hurt themselves, but because others tend to misunderstand us, take us for dangerous, and hurt us because of it. I’m lucky I get to spend the majority of my time on the sane side of that line. Others aren’t so lucky.

Most of us probably can agree that the lunatic ranting on the street corner didn’t get that way by poor life choices, right? Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t see it that way. People really do say things like, “Get a job, you lousy bum!” Seriously. I’ve seen it.

But for people like me, who maybe are a little bit there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I with regard to becoming a ranting hobo on the street corner, but probably won’t go there because we’re more stable and functional, it’s more difficult to sort out what part of our behavior is intentional on some level and can be changed, and what part is just who we are. It’s even difficult for me to sort out, with regard to my own behavior. So when people get frustrated or angry with me for doing certain things, and give me the “straighten up and fly right/get a job you lousy bum”-type lecture, it really hits home.

I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with myself and beating up on myself for being certain ways. I end up walking this tightrope; on one side is things about myself that I can’t change, and just need to learn how to deal with; and on the other side is behavior that I could change, and would be copping out if I blamed it on my mental health issues. Everyone else has their own opinions about which side of that tightrope certain behaviors fall, which makes it even harder to sort out for myself.

And then there’s the added stigma that a lot of people think I’m being attention-seeking or trying to be a “special snowflake” for even talking about these issues publicly. Since I’ve seen even POC and other diverse individuals get that brand of bullshit, though, I try not to let it bug me too much. I’m talking about these issues for the same reasons any diverse person talks about the issues related to their diversity: to understand it myself and to garner more understanding from others, so that someday maybe people like me will have a comfortable place in society where we don’t suffer discrimination, abuse, violence, and misunderstanding.

I hope that by writing these blog posts and books like The Other Place, I make some headway in that regard.

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