Are You Your Mental Illness?

Are you your illness? - graphic of woman with writing on her face

Sometimes, as part of anti-stigma campaigns, you’ll hear that we shouldn’t say people are bipolar, schizophrenic, etc. The thinking goes that phrasing it this way puts people in a little box in which they’re primarily defined by their illness.

Yet at the same time, you’ll find many bloggers referring to themselves as “I am bipolar.” I don’t think there’s really an equivalent for depression or anxiety disorders. I could say “I am depressed”, but that implies a more temporary state of being than “I am bipolar.” I could say “I am depressive”, and I know some people do use that language, but to me, it just sounds a bit awkward. Similarly, “I am anxious” does not carry the same sense of permanence as “I am bipolar” or “I am schizophrenic.”

Regardless of semantics, the question still remains – do you identify as your illness?

Evolution of illness identity over time

For me, depression first struck when I was 27. I experienced it very much as something that was superimposed on top of me rather than something that was me. As a result, I identified very distinct ill and well selves. For the first several years, my illness was episodic; when I was sick I was very sick, and when I was in remission I was completely well.

As my illness has evolved, it’s become treatment-resistant, and remission just doesn’t happen anymore. That’s led to an identity shift where I’ve had to fuse the distinct well and ill selves into a more unified self living with illness. That has mostly involved letting go of a lot of the well me that used to exist. Along with that came a sense of mourning, almost. It was hard to let go of that well me identity, but eventually, it really wasn’t serving me anymore.

Now, my self is indistinguishable from my illness. That doesn’t mean that the illness is all that I am; what it does mean is that the depression is present in all aspects of myself and my life. There’s no part of my life where depression is absent, so I suppose I am depression, although grammatically, that’s rather odd. Still, depression does not capture all of me. Being a mental health blogger has allowed me to feel more grounded in that hybrid of inextricably intertwined selves.

The inevitability of illness identity construction

Establishing an illness identity is something I don’t think gets paid enough attention to. It’s not a symptom of the illness, but it’s an almost inevitable consequence, and there really isn’t an easy way to go about it. It’s not in the mental illness life instruction manual, but it should be. Okay, the manual itself doesn’t exist, but someone should write it and include a chapter on identity.

Whether you’ve had signs of illness since you were young and it’s all you’ve ever known, or whether it’s something that’s snuck in later in life and hijacked everything, it’s a difficult process that calls for a lot of self-reflection.

Who decides identities?

I’m not keen on other people referring to someone by their diagnosis unless they know that person identifies as such. An illness identity is a very personal thing, and like any other aspect of identity, whether that’s gender, sexuality, religion, or whatever, I don’t think others have the right to make those identity determinations for us.

That being said, I think it’s ridiculous to tell people living with mental illness how we should or should not identify and describe ourselves. Sometimes I choose to reclaim the word crazy. We should all be able to use whatever words we like to describe ourselves.

In terms of the bigger picture when it comes to stigma, I think language like “he is bipolar” or “she is schizophrenic” is probably the least of our worries. And when it comes to saying “I am…”, anything goes.

Do you identify as your illness?

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