Are You Your Illness?

Defining a mental illness identity

Image by JL G from Pixabay

Sometimes as part of anti-stigma campaigns you’ll hear “rules” that we shouldn’t say people are bipolar, schizophrenic, etc. The thinking goes that phrasing it this way puts people in a little box in which they are primarily (or only) defined by their illness.

Yet at the same time, you’ll find many mental health bloggers referring to themselves as “I am bipolar.” I don’t think there’s really an equivalent for depression or anxiety disorders. I could say “I am depressed”, but that implies a more temporary state of being than “I am bipolar.” I could say “I am depressive”, and I know some people do use that language, but to me it just sounds a bit awkward. Similarly, “I am anxious” does not carry the same sense of permanence as “I am bipolar” or “I am schizophrenic.”

Regardless of semantics, the question still remains — if you have a mental illness, do you identify as your illness?

For me, depression first struck when I was 27. I experienced it very much as something that was superimposed on top of me rather than something that was me, and I identified very distinct ill and well selves. For the first several years, my illness was episodic; when I was sick I was very sick, and when I was in remission I was completely well.

As my illness has evolved, it’s become treatment-resistant, and remission just doesn’t happen anymore. That’s led to an identity shift where I’ve had to fuse the distinct well and ill selves into a more unified self with living with illness. That has mostly involved letting go of a lot of the well me that used to exist. Along with that came a sense of mourning, almost. It was hard to let go of that well me identity, but it had gotten to the point where it really wasn’t serving me anymore.

Now, my self is indistinguishable from my illness. That doesn’t mean that the illness is all I am, but it does mean that the depression is present in all of the aspects of myself and my life. There is no part of my life where depression is absent, so I suppose I am depression, although linguistically that’s rather odd. Still, depression does not capture all of me. I think being a mental health blogger has allowed me to feel more grounded in that hybrid ill self and inner self.

Establishing an illness identity is something I don’t think gets paid enough attention to. It’s not a symptom of the illness, but it’s an almost inevitable consequence, and there really isn’t an easy way to go about it. Whether you’ve had signs of illness since you were young and it’s all you’ve ever known, or whether it’s something that’s snuck in later in life and hijacked everything, it’s a difficult process that calls for a lot of self-reflection.

I’m not keen on other people referring to someone by their diagnosis unless they know that person identifies as such. An illness identity is a very personal thing, and like any other aspect of identity, whether that’s gender, sexuality, religion, or whatever, I don’t think others have the right to make those identity determinations for us.

That being said, I think it’s ridiculous to tell people living with mental illness how we should or should not identify and describe ourselves. Personally, sometimes I choose to reclaim and use the word crazy, and by being able to laugh at myself, the world looks a lot brighter. We should all be able to use whatever words we like to describe ourselves.

In terms of the bigger picture when it comes to stigma, I think language like “he is bipolar” or “she is schizophrenic” is probably the least of our worries. And when it comes to saying “I am”, anything goes.

Do you identify as your illness?

Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on October 14, 2019.

Written by

Mental health blogger | MH Nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle | mentalhealthathome.org

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