Let’s talk about identity.
There are so many pieces that make up each of our identities. Pieces that we glue together from experiences, innate characteristics, influences from others, trauma, love; so many things. Is an illness part of that? How much a part of us is our mental illness? How much does it define who we are?
There is something I like to bring up every so often. Person-first language. I like to share reminders of the stigma we can express with our language use. Some people have different preferences but, generally speaking, it is important to maintain someone’s identity outside of their illness as opposed to defining them by it. For example; ‘she has bipolar disorder’ as opposed to ‘she is bipolar’. This choice of words expresses a certain sense of dignity and wholeness. It implies that the person is the entirety of many traits and characteristics and that the illness is not the defining factor.
I personally prefer this wording. I like to be considered for all that I am, and as someone who is successful and has an illness rather than someone who is successful despite an illness.
I’ve often wondered who I would be without my illness. Would I be as empathetic? Would I feel things as deeply? Would I be a writer? Would I be as creative? There’s no way to know. In the end however, for what I’ve learned about myself and the way I’ve grown, I wouldn’t take away the illness if I could.
This may seem a bit counterintuitive to those who know or have read about the pain this illness can cause me. The psychological torment many live with can be unbearable, highly disruptive and at times debilitating. A mental illness may sound like something no one would wish upon themselves but it’s not about whether we would wish for it. It’s about the fact that we live with it and have had experiences based on it. For me at least, now that I’ve lived with this diagnosis for 10 years and with symptoms for many more, I know myself better. I find power in that self-awareness, in knowing my strengths and what I have to offer the world.
A lot of research has delved into the correlation between creative minds and mental illness. But in the end I try not to define myself by my illness or without it. It informs who I am, how I react and what I feel but it’s also not the be all and end all of who I am. I can manage it, I can be in control. I can determine what face I show the world, and that is one that is not controlled by my symptoms.
Many people see a diagnosis as a negative label. They fear the stigma that comes with it and worry that people will see them differently. What I try to do is put forward my talents, my kindness, the traits that allow me to connect with people on a deeper level. My illness is a way to empathize with those who suffer from similar mental health concerns and show them they are not alone.
As I always say, don’t be ashamed of how different you are, be proud of how far you’ve come.