Disowning Mental Illness: “It’s Not Me”

I’ve talked a lot about linguistic discourse and mental illness, and now I want to talk about why we are disowning mental illness. There is a general tendency to say “it’s not me” when referring to the “me” that has phases of illness. This might come out of the larger movement of mental illness not defining who a person is. While I believe illness does not define us, I have to question why we don’t want to acknowledge mental illness as a part of ourselves — or, really, any trait deemed negative by society or culture.

When someone has a traumatic experience, it makes complete sense to want to get away from that experience as much as possible. Many don’t know (and I only discovered this recently) that receiving a mental health diagnosis is considered traumatic for some people; this could resonate with a range of people, like those who were involuntarily hospitalized and people who just never thought something like that would happen to them. This is not to say people also have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it could be a possibility — I’m not one to comment on that as I don’t know the literature on that topic very well (here’s a sample of the complexity). Nonetheless, mental illness is a unique experience that has negatively affected a lot of people.

But the beauty of the negative is there is always a positive. Enter Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), a complementary topic to the study of trauma. PTG is the concept of people gaining something positive — sometimes monumentally so — after a traumatic event. A great example of PTG is evident in this study, where the researchers looked at PTG after someone’s first episode of psychosis. As some of us know, psychosis can bring many insights; these are insights I have cherished because it’s such an unusual and remarkable experience to have. That’s not to downplay the negative events that sometimes lead up to and follow someone’s episode of psychosis. But if we’re going to talk about mental illness in an unbiased way, we need to look at all sides — and the positive side has been studied least. Turns out, some people could end up with better quality of life after psychosis.

Delusions put me in danger. Delusions could have ruined me. But delusions opened my eyes to impossible realities, and it inspired me to live a life I love.

Why are we disowning mental illness? Why do we say mental illness is that person, not me? I can’t and never could speak for anyone; I simply notice a trend I think should be discussed more rigourously. From my logic, we own the parts of ourselves that we value, that our loved ones value, that society and culture values. We disown the parts that aren’t valued. It could be fair to say mental illness has no positive influence on one’s life, although I have a hard time believing its entirety is just bad. What’s more likely is how stigma is interacting with people to shape how they view mental illness (aka self-stigma). In truth, I believe people could be accessing more positive perspectives of mental illness, diagnosis or not.

So, am I my illness? Well, yes, I am by all means. There’s no one else inhabiting my body (although I’d be okay with someone proving the the-x-files-i-want-to-believe-printexistence of ghosts and other mystical creatures). What happens during phases of my illness is because of altered bodily functions, but it’s still me. It will always be me. Separating myself from my illness doesn’t help me; I used to think that it did, that denying its part in my everyday life was just out of the question. But it’s not something I can run from, because it’s always been me; trying to get away from it is denying myself its truth. In my own perspective, embracing my bipolar is embracing myself. Disowning myself is cruel. And disowning my illness doesn’t let me get to know it, to see how it works so I can take care of it. The reality for me is there is no distinction between me and my bipolar. I am a person who is labelled bipolar because I have various life experiences and other qualities that a certain group of people also share. But we can make groups based on behaviours and experiences in an infinite amount of ways. Ultimately, the label doesn’t matter — matter. I may need more healthcare visits than some others. I may need to pay attention to life in distinct ways to stay healthy. Embracing what they call an illness empowers me and allows me to say no to stigma.

So, “it’s not me” or “yeah, it’s me”? There are so many topics that lack research, so this ends up being a battle of opinions. My stance on the matter is it could be beneficial to see the self as whole rather than separate the parts that might be considered sick or invaluable. Ultimately, we need to think about any and every way that could benefit one’s quality of life, and also delve into positive psychology much more than we do with mental illness.