Who Am I? Self-Identity and Mental Health

Can we become overly identified with our symptom or diagnosis?

Posted Dec 16, 2010

I've been blogging for several years on my personal blog, Mellifluence, and before that I wrote a paper zine (oh, so 80's!) Most of my blog entries for Psychology Today have been pretty open and straigtforward about my mental health experiences. Through it all, my signature, if you will, has been my openness about my own emotional struggles, including struggling with what many would call depression, though I change my mind often about what to call it. I've been on antidepressants, and I've had a lot of therapy. I even co-authored a book, Depression 101. I've gone to hundreds of workshops, retreats, and various other programs which I sought out to help me become more balanced, happier, and make better life decisions.  I've certainly gotten a lot of accolades over the years for my emotional honesty, but I've also had people tell me that I'm too sad and should just get over it already and choose to be happy.

My purpose with all this self-disclosure, at least consciously, has been to help others who may find themselves struggling with similar issues. I've wanted to communicate that these experiences - as painful as some of them are - are here to teach us and to help us grow, and are not struggles to keep locked in some closet or box somewhere as we pretend to everyone around us that we do not suffer. I've wanted to use my own experiences to provide strength and support to others, and I've also used my writing as a therapeutic process. Writing about it all, and feeling that the writing may be helping others, helps me put my experiences into perspective, helps me learn about myself, and helps me heal.

But what happens when we become too identified with a diagnosis or other label? I've been uncomfortable for some time with this idea that I might be typecasting myself as a writer about depression, at the same time that I believe people who struggle emotionally the way I do deserve to have an advocate who doesn't consider them diseased. I want to be that advocate, but I also want to express the other parts of myself.

Part of the issue, I feel, and I've even seen this pop up in comments to my blog posts here, is that the stigma in this culture about mental illness is still very strong. I'd even expand this: I think there's a stigma in this culture, not only about mental illness, but about any emotional or psychological discomfort that is more than fleeting. If you're "mentally ill" (read: if you often  struggle with emotional experiences that are uncomfortable and you choose to be honest about it), that is you, you are it, and everything else about you is suspect. One friend recently told me that the proof of my "sadness" is that I've written so much about the emotional difficulties I've had over the past few years. He seemed to forget all the lightness and joy I've written about and expressed in his presence. Those emotionally honest words about my personal darkness have damned me, in his eyes it seems, to one particular category of human: the sad ones.

But anyone who knows me also knows me as a happy, dancing person who laughs constantly, loves music, loves to take photographs, is kind, concerned, empathetic, smart, compassionate, funny, understanding, and will help anyone in need, no matter what.

Isn't this true of all of us? Aren't we all more than a label or diagnosis? A friend and I were talking about her recent separation from her partner, and about how tired she's getting of everyone asking her how she is in that particular tone of voice that makes it clear that they're asking how she's doing in her grief. Though she genuinely appreciates the support, and even still needs it, she's more than just the ending of the relationship and it's probably a testament to her healing that she's ready to, at least somewhat, move back into the rest of her life now and talk about other things. At one point does she cease to be The One in Grief and begin re-inhabit the full complexity of the identity she had before the breakup?

My challenge in regards to becoming overly identified as a writer about depression is to express the other parts of myself with the same confidence and openness with which I've historically expressed my emotional struggles. I've become comfortable expressing that side of myself, perhaps too comfortable. The challenge of my friend who talked about my sadness might be to  open into a new understanding of the complexities of the human experience. The challenge of my newly separated friend might be to consider how to express the other parts of herself that may have been subsumed by her grief. And the challenge for all of us, I'd offer, is to strive to see in one another the full depths of each other, rather than categorizing one another with a single word or label, or assuming we know someone because of a label that has been affixed to them.

How about you? Who are you and is there a label that you could stand to lose, expand upon, or add to?