What If My [Mental Illness] DOES Define Me?

Finger pointing to word in dictionary
Finger pointing to word in dictionary

It’s heartening to see the media take up the call to action to talk about mental health after decades of silence. The problem is how its talking about it. The first major issue I see is with the unquestioned propagation of the biomedical model as if its science-verified fact. Look, folks, even mainstream The Guardian is running pieces that are saying that it’s pretty clearly not. Mental health advocates, communities and support networks perpetuate this model – not as a highly specious one or one of an array of options but as back-uppable fact – not because they’re trying to be deceptive but because they really want people to understand that it’s not the sufferer’s fault. If something is wrong with your brain, then your depression is not a moral failing, your anxiety is not a choice, your OCD is not a character flaw, etc. You are the victim. 

But this actually only deepens stigma. If mental illness is the outward sign of a “random” inward chemical imbalance, then sure, it’s not your fault, but you’re still seen as out of control, or unable to control your emotions, thoughts and consequent actions. The diseased-brain model enforces the “us-them” divide – the people who lucked out with healthy, “balanced” brains (has anyone stopped to ask who built the scale? Or if there even is one?) and those who, by some mysterious concoction of genetics and environment, did not. But what if mental ‘illness’ is meaningful and legitimate suffering? Our brains are clearly responsive to our environments in the name of survival; in a word, our brains are relational. If shit goes wrong while yours is still forming, why wouldn’t that have an impact on how you function throughout your life? But, because our brains are relational, this doesn’t have to be the life-sentence that the chemical-imbalance theory is. And you get to keep your “it’s not the sufferer’s fault” truth. Abuse, neglect, trauma, none of these things are the victim’s fault.

But they are pretty definitive. This is the second major problem I have with how the media, including the mental-health community, is talking about mental health. There are many BuzzFeed and BuzzFeedoid articles featuring folks with lived experience of what we’re still calling mental illness and nearly all of them include some rendition of “my [insert mental health condition/diagnosis here] does not define me.” I wonder who they’re saying it for, themselves because it’s true or the outside world because it’s still shameful to have a “mental illness” and so they, with good old American can-do gusto, are trying to find a phrasing or reinterpretation of their story that looks best from the outside.

This is toxic optimism. If you’ve ever suffered from an extreme state, heard voices, gotten confused about where (and when) you were, been crushed through with meaninglessness, unable to breathe because of all-swallowing terror…well, you’ve probably been at least a little bit defined by these experiences. It would be kind of weird, and kind of pathological, not to be shaped in some way by your experiences – that is, actually, how the brain works. My depression sometimes does define me. If I can’t say that out loud, how will I ever get loved in that place? My anxiety and helpless rage sometimes do define me. Can I really find comfort and peace if I try to rewrite the story to say something untrue?

I have been defined by searing sorrow. I have been defined by evisecerating terror, endless regressions of self-doubt, existential angst. I have had to work hard to build up the strength to be loved, tearing muscles and dislocating joints along the way, which have defined the contours of my spirit in ways I’m pretty sure are permanent. I’m not at all saying that “God allowed these “mental illness” experiences so that I would grow, get strong, learn, etc.” That sort of pop theology is like sugar for a diabetic. I am saying that I am not going to pretend I have not been defined by my experiences in life, mental-health-wise and all. I am not going to be dishonest about how my anger, grief, woundedness and fear have shaped and continue to shape my perspectives. And I’m not going to let the fact that my “mental illness” has, does and will define me be itself defined as a bad thing.

2 thoughts on “What If My [Mental Illness] DOES Define Me?”

  1. I remember a Simpson’s episode where Homer is put in a mental health facility. Upon entry to the facility, they use a ink stamp upon his hand, the stamp marks the top of his hand with the word “crazy”. He is assured it will wash off upon his exit from the facility, and of course it doesn’t wash off. Much to his dismay friends and family see the label crazy upon his hand and assume the worst. Homer is unable to persuade anyone that he went to the crazy farm just for some rest and relaxation, which is the truth. Seinfeld also had a episode involving Lloyd Braun, where he was defined by his mental illness, despite appearing sane. I think this episode involved the purchase of a movie theater. Most people will define you by your worst behavior, be it criminal, addictions, infidelity or mental instability. Do we all say to ourselfs “Here’s another person I can feel superior to” or is it a deeper survival mechanism when the margins of error for survival were much smaller?

  2. I remember a Simpson’s episode where Homer is put in a mental health facility. Upon entry to the facility, they use a ink stamp upon his hand, the stamp marks the top of his hand with the word “crazy”. He is assured it will wash off upon his exit from the facility, and of course it doesn’t wash off. Much to his dismay friends and family see the label crazy upon his hand and assume the worst. Homer is unable to persuade anyone that he went to the crazy farm just for some rest and relaxation, which is the truth. Seinfeld also had a episode involving Lloyd Braun, where he was defined by his mental illness, despite appearing sane. I think this episode involved the purchase of a movie theater. Most people will define you by your worst behavior, be it criminal, addictions, infidelity or mental instability. Do we all say to ourselfs “Here’s another person I can feel superior to” or is it a deeper survival mechanism when the margins of error for survival were much smaller?

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