As a survivor of multiple suicide attempts who writes and speaks about my experiences, I come across lots of stigma, judgment, and embarrassment at times. The way some people look at me—or stop talking to me—when they discover I’ve dealt with major depression and tried to end my life was something that kept me quiet for too long. I’ve had numerous different labels and diagnoses put on me since my teens, and I was never glad to hear any of them, but I became comfortable with most over the years once I realized they didn’t define me.
However, I still hate the term “mental illness.” Those are not words anyone wants to own and it focuses on what is wrong. It is riddled in stigma because it comes from the legal world, the criminally insane, and bad movies that paint the mentally ill as evil or dangerous. I have no problem saying I’m dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, mental health challenges etc., but I’m never going to proudly raise my hand to the term mentally ill. I prefer to work on my mental wellness, which is something every human being can get behind. We can have mental wellness challenges in stead of mental illness diagnoses and labels. There is no battle or suffering when the focus is on your wellness. I find mental wellness and mental health as much more tolerable terms, even empowering.
Have you ever met someone who said, “I have physical illness”? So why do we need to force the term, mental illness, on people? Instead of spending our energies on fighting all the baggage tied to a term, just let it go. I’d much rather focus on mental health and mental wellness than mental illness.
No family wants mental illness to be part of their experience. They don’t want mental illness to be associated with their loved ones. No parents want the label of mental illness to be on their children. Well, perhaps except for my dad. My dad has worked as a psychiatric nurse and counselor and he’s also been a psychiatric patient. He’s been on psychiatric medication as long as I’ve been alive. He has long gone back and forth between saying that psychiatry and pharmaceuticals are all a crock and embracing it all.
For decades my father has anticipated, predicted and seemed to look forward to the day that I would be diagnosed as bipolar. Almost any time I’ve been happy or in a good mood, he said to me that I’m bipolar. He’s even argued about it with my wife, insisting that eventually, I’ll get that diagnosis. In fact, I got that diagnosis when I was 16 years old, because I had been depressed and suicidal and my dad was bipolar. That was it. I remember talking with the psychiatrist for at most 15 minutes before he decided that was the reason, all despite my never having had a manic episode.
My father has pointed out that I have a lot of energy, ideas and often am very productive. I usually laugh at that because it is a fact that I have big energy, lots of ideas and get things done. I can be productive and take consistent action when I’m not wishing I was dead. Some of the biggest battles I’ve had with my dad are over this notion that feeling good is somehow yet another disorder. From living in the world of diagnoses for most of his life, he wants to define everyone around him in that same way.
I finally began feeling better, consistently, when I rejected the diagnoses and labels. I stopped focusing on the idea that anything was wrong at all. Being depressed doesn’t mean you have clinical depression. Being anxious doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder. We are emotional beings and I’m tired of emotions so often being labeled as disorders.
My dad accepted his label of bipolar or manic depressive long ago and he has often seemed to enjoy feeling a connection with me around mental health challenges. My negative outlook on life came from so many of the things I heard him say as a child. I believed from a very young age that life sucked because my father told me it did. All of our thoughts or feelings don’t come from something being wrong in our brains. We are all much more than chemical reactions. Something running in your family doesn’t mean you’ll have it too. If embracing a label or diagnosis helps you, if it brings you a sense of relief – great, run with it. If people keep trying to put labels on you, to explain you or define you and you don’t like it – then tell them to piss off. The only label that truly matters is the one you put upon yourself. The diagnosis that matters is your opinion of you.
Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass once said, “If you think you are so enlightened, go and spend a week with your parents.” Thanks to all the probing and labeling from my dad, I don’t like spending more than a few minutes with him, let alone a week.
I focus on my mental and emotional health, not illness. I have no hesitation or problem with speaking about my experiences with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and attempts, but I never think of myself as mentally ill. I’ve never met anyone who wants to be mentally ill, so let’s leave that term to the past, to the courts. As everyday human beings, let’s all choose mental health or mental wellness.
I’m glad to work daily on breaking down the stigma of depression, PTSD, anxiety, and suicide. I do my best to create a society that doesn’t have shame or embarrassment around asking for help. In fact, my goal is that we all see asking for help as one of the bravest things someone can do.
Photo credit: Pixabay