When someone experiencing mental difficulties receives a diagnosis, it’s the culmination of a long and exhausting path through uncharted territory. A journey travelled alone, with meager provisions and no map or guarantee of a happy destination.
There are no words…
Most people think mental illness doesn’t concern them. It’s a mysterious galaxy beyond the bounds of their universe, ‘There’s no need to go there – we can see it through the Hubble telescope and we have everything we need here anyway’. Even if they wanted to, many don’t have the vocabulary to discuss it, and by that I don’t mean psych jargon, I mean the ability to communicate ideas and concepts that aren’t reflected in the world around them. It’s because of this that, even within families, sufferers and those close to them exist in isolating, individual bubbles – unable to communicate their experience to anyone else.
Unlocking the cypher
A diagnosis brings intense relief. Where once there was only darkness, suddenly there’s a warm and welcoming light. You’re not alone – there are others like you; you no longer feel like an oddity, you no longer have to keep the secret.
A diagnosis is the pen that traces a line between the dots and helps you see the bigger picture; working down the list of symptoms and realizing your struggles are aspects of a condition NOT personal failings helps you make more sense of your life and removes the guilt. It brings hope and renewed self-belief. It gives you the words to explain yourself.
Knowledge is power and the more you know about your adversary the greater your chances of defeating them, UNLESS you mistake knowledge for a hook to hang personal responsibility on.
Loving the label
“I OWN it!!!” is a colloquialism people use to describe their domination of a skill or situation – “Man, I OWNED that game!” Some sufferers of mental illness, who’ve invariably struggled with identity issues on account of their differences, can be tempted to give up the fight and accede to the definitions of their new label. Instead of ‘owning it’ they denounce their Self in favor of a generic description in a mental health handbook. Their condition becomes their biggest identifying feature to the point that they’d feel insignificant without it. Everything is explained and perceived through the prism of “my illness’.
Nothing’s that simple
Was it Socrates who said “Know thyself”? True knowledge and insight into ones illness can’t be had from words in a pamphlet. It’s a process of self-examination and understanding how the issues impact you personally. Any definition of a mental illness is a broad overview designed to cover a range of possible manifestations – not everyone will present in the same way. Just as physical ailments affect people in different ways – some make a quick recovery, others take longer, some have a high pain threshold, others baulk at the sight of a needle – so too do mental illnesses. No two individuals will have the same experience.
Get out of jail free
In my own efforts to understand my diagnosis I’ve read many blogs on BPD whose authors view their illness as an exemption from taking responsibility and ownership for their actions. I’ve winced through paragraphs of rants and revelry in their own lack of culpability – the old ‘I can’t help it’ attitude. I’m not talking about people discussing suicide, self-harm and mood-swings, they’re bitching about partners who selfishly refuse to accept their verbal abuse, colleagues who don’t pander to their excuses. I came across one person in her twenties who’s completely cared for by her parents, to the extent she won’t prepare any kind of cooked meal because she believes she’s not responsible enough to operate a stove. There are people living with mental retardation who accomplish more.
A mental illness doesn’t mean the world must meet you on YOUR terms. A diagnosis is an aid, not an exemption. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself not re-write your personality. It’s an invitation to grow, not regress. Don’t let your illness own you. It’s a large part of you, yes – but so’s your gender, are you happy to let other people’s perception of that dictate your life?
Author’s note, June 2014: Since the time of writing I’ve been re-diagnosed with Aspergers and Bipolar II. I no longer meet the criteria for BPD and given the existing cases of Aspergers and bipolar in my direct family I have to admit this re-diagnosis seems a more accurate explanation for my symptoms. Oh, the beauty of hindsight…