Are you really? What makes you so different? An illness? A diagnosis? Something that has caused a setback or caused you to have an issue or multiple issues in your life? I don’t think so. I mean, I really don’t. Let me explain why. I think that you’re not so different because everyone has stuff. Only when we see someone who is trained to compartmentalize the ‘stuff’ do we find out that our stuff has a name. Do we cure the mental illness that is causing someone absolutely no harm? Sure, it may make them a bit quirky and a bit strange, but to cure it for the sake of normalizing a behavior to societal standards? Is that what we should do? I think as mental health professionals we are taught to look at everyone as a walking list of diagnostic criteria and somewhere along the way we forget the humans exist below the labels. It’s sad really. I, personally, have been on this side of the mental health world and been the one to say ‘oh she’s just a damn Borderline’ or ‘working with this kid with conduct disorder is exhausting..’ I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be that jackass that is throwing out the labels and, honestly, for that I am truly sorry. I’m sorry for being the person who helped perpetuate the stereotypes and treated people as a diagnosis instead of a human being.
This calls to mind a scene from the movie Patch Adams which is based on a true story about a doctor who saw healthcare in a completely different and unconventional way. In the scene, Patch (Robin Williams) is in med school and his attending is showing the students a patient, lets look at how it unfolds:
Physician: Here we have a juvenile onset diabetic with poor circulation and diabetic neuropathy.
As you can see, these are diabetic ulcers with lymphedema and evidence of gangrene.
Student: Any osteomyelitis?
Physician: None apparent. Although not definitive.
Physician: To stabilize the blood sugar. Consider antibiotics, possibly amputation. (fear comes across woman’s face)
Patch Adams (Robin Williams): What’s her name? I was just wondering the patient’s name.
Patch: Hi, Marjorie.
Marjorie: Hi. (Marjorie smiles at Patch)
Physician: Yes, um, thank you. Let’s move on.
Patch Got It
I’ve been a fan of this movie since the first time I saw it. I remember thinking to myself “Wow! He gets it. He gets that people are people and they need to be connected with not just treated.” This mindset could be why I didn’t fit in with the world of mental health with managed care therapy, treatment plans, and limits to self-disclosure. I always felt that therapy was and is a journey of two individuals, together. I meets thou. As Carl Jung once said “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” In true therapy, a journey is taken by both the patient and practitioner. I am thankful for a psychiatrist who has journeyed with me to Hell and back.
I Stopped Being a Person and Started Being a Label
I remember it just like it was yesterday. “Dan, you have Bipolar Disorder.” My heart dropped, but I knew this was true long before I got to the doctor’s office. I was currently in grad school and taking a class on mental disorders and had grown up with a mother who has Bipolar Disorder. I wondered why my depression seemed to come and go with periods of feeling like I could take over the world. Now I knew. But the diagnosis did not provide me the relief that you would think. If anything, I equate it to the first time I had handcuffs placed on me and shackles on my feet. I knew I was being led into something that would alter my life forever.
What followed over the next five years, or so, was me assuming the role of a person with Bipolar Disorder. I tried 20+ medications, therapy, religion, and every seemingly every self-help book possible. I had a huge problem with substance abuse, manic spending; freaky sex, being depressed, controlling my angry outbursts, slowing down thoughts that raced so fast they could tryout for NASCAR, I even swallowed pills in botched suicide attempts; you name it.
At this time, I literally would tell anyone that I met “Hey I’m Dan. Oh by the way, I’m Bipolar.” I was like the leper in Biblical times who would announce their coming with shouts of “Unclean! Unclean!”. I literally allowed my illness to define how others saw me and who I was. Only now, after years of rejection, judgment, and heartbreak, have I realized that this does not and will not define me. Does the cardiac patient go around saying “Hi, I’m Jim. I have Atrial Fibrillation” (AFib). No. So why do we feel the need to do the same with our mental illnesses? I think it’s because we are conditioned from a young age by society, family, church, groups, etc. to believe we are “less than” because of this. “You just have to focus on the good stuff.” “Just get over it”, “Stop making excuses!” or my favorite “If you had enough faith God would heal you..” I’m sure that some of you have never heard statements like these. I’m glad for you. However, I bet the majority can relate to these more than they care to admit.
We are a Society who Thrives on Labels
We take on these labels as badges of honor or, in my case, ways to hold ourselves back. We cease to be human beings living with an illness and start to be illnesses living with a human being. Do you see the difference? Who’s running the show? You or your illness? I think this blog post is for me today. To let you know, and to remind myself, that we all have days that we succumb to the label. But, we need to remind ourselves, daily that we are not our label. We are not: addict, borderline, bipolar, depression, schizophrenic, cutter, anxiety. We are people: husbands, daughters, friends, wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, etc. More importantly, we are: Bill, Dan, Jane, Ashley, Ralph, Jordan, whatever your name may be. You are a person with an illness, NOT an illness with a person. Don’t let society fool you, don’t let your doctors fool you, and more importantly, don’t let your mind fool you. You are an individual and you have the final say.
Live Beyond the Label
If you want to be different then show yourself and the world! “How?” you might ask. By not conforming to the diagnosis. Sure, you’ll have your days, we all do, but it’s your job and responsibility to make sure that you own them and not let them own you. Look in the mirror today and say to yourself “You’re OK.” Then take a breath and realize, everyone has their junk, we just have had the courage to own ours. But that’s only the first step. Now that we own it, we are responsible for managing it. Besides, it’s not in control unless you give it the power.
So, I encourage you today, whatever you have been labeled, diagnosed, or told; have the courage to live beyond the label. Take your medicine, see your therapist, call that friend, write in your journal, exercise, rest if you need to, lay off or cut back on the booze and drugs, reach out for help, be honest with yourself and others, and do what you have to live the life of a human being and don’t allow yourself become another statistic. You are more than a label and more than a number. I’ve always been the person who believes “some rules are meant for breaking” and “so are labels”.
This may not be an easy pill to swallow because, if I can be honest, it wasn’t easy prescription to write. It’s never easy to challenge others because you know that in order to avoid the term “hypocrite” you must, first, challenge yourself. Reform and change begin inside the heart. In order for us to change the views of others, we must change our view of ourselves. It won’t be easy, but nothing ever worth having comes with ease. It’s time to break free of conventional, in the box thinking. It’s time to live outside the box, break free from our labels, take care of ourselves, and live up to our fullest potential. You are not an illness; you are a person. Take back your identity, take back your freedom, and most importantly, take back your life!
Be well my friends,
Label guy photo available from Shutterstock