I got this question over on the EHAB Tumblr:
Can I ask why it’s not good to define yourself based on your mental illness? I mean I understand that I am complex and interesting beyond my depression, but sometimes I feel like people who say things like that are trying to get me to stop talking about it/get over it. Can you explain what you think the goal of “you are not your illness” mantras are?
The simple answer is: because you are not your farts. Building your identity around mental illness symptoms is no different that building your identity around farting.
Farting is the result of things your organs do, influenced by genetic and environmental factors and the decisions you make each day, just like mental illness. Understanding the genetic and environmental context and the impacts of your decisions, empowers you to make choices that limit the amount of farting in your life. Or empower you to increase the amount of farting in your life. If you know something makes you fart, and you do that thing all of the time, you’re going to be farting all of the time. This happens with our brains, too.
But farting is transient. There’s a deeper identity you have beyond that. There’s a YOU that exists when you’re not farting and it’s the same YOU that exists when you are farting. You can build your identity around farting if you want to, but people are going to expect it from you. You’ll have to make that transient thing permanent. But maybe there’ll be a day when you really don’t want to feel bloated and smell farts anymore. Maybe you decide you’re sick of that thing that makes you fart and you don’t want to do it anymore. But now everybody expects it of you. That’s who you are! That’s what you told them. You’re a farter! Keep farting!
The same happens if you build yourself around mental illness labels. If your identity and relationships are built around things you hate, you’ll be amazed at how the things you hate seem to follow you around.
If you only see yourself or others through diagnostic labels invented by committees with vested financial interests in promoting those labels, you can end up creating a totalizing filter that skews your perspective on everything you experience. It becomes an oppressive microscope through which we examine every aspect of our world. New job? I need to find one that won’t trigger my social anxieties. New relationship? But what about my codependence issues?! Coworker said something you thought was offensive? They must be stigmatizing me! Going on a trip? But I might have a panic attack!
Managing the labels becomes an all-consuming compulsion. Sometimes those labels are helpful when they enable us to access help. But our brains can change. It’s possible to outgrow the labels. I’m somebody who used to stand in front of his stove to make sure it didn’t spontaneously erupt in flames and would see people in the crosswalk get crushed by cars and their blood and guts spread across intersections. At that time, many labels could get stuck on me and many were, but none of them apply anymore and holding onto them would provide absolutely no value or support to the actions I take each day to do the things that matter to me. So I want to encourage you to entertain the possibility that there is actually nothing permanently wrong with you (or me). You just have a brain. Carving a mental illness label in stone and chaining it to your brain ignores the reality of your brain’s capacity for change.
Everybody has varying levels of improvable mental health (because everybody has a brain), just like everybody has improvable levels of physical health (because everybody has a body). And mental health is chronic, just like physical health—we need to take care of both everyday or else they worsen. Sometimes we run into challenges with our brains, and those are very real challenges. But those challenges are things we overcome on the path to doing the things we want to do in life. We don’t have to let those challenges become us.