Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sticky-glue. Tuesday, November 16, 2010.

“Once you label me, you negate me.” –Soren Kierkegaard

I am female. I am blonde. I am Christian. I am educated. I am intelligent. I am pretty. I am bipolar.

Which sentence caused you to sit up and take note?

It’s a strange thing about many mental illnesses. Unlike most other kinds of illnesses, their names are labels that define us. I have a friend who HAS cancer. Another friend who HAS lupus. But another friend of mine IS schizophrenic. Huh. Interesting.

Like most rules, this one has exceptions. For example, my husband is diabetic and my son is asthmatic. But there’s a reason why many advocates for the mentally ill work so hard to reframe the language around these illnesses, conditions, disorders and syndromes. When it comes to differences of the mind, labels cling to us like sticky-glue.

Of course, the language wouldn’t matter if there weren’t a stigma attached. When I was young and single, I was very open about my “manic depression” (as they called it then). Now that I support a family and make my living in publishing, I keep my diagnosis to myself.

I shouldn’t have to do that, and some people would tell me I SHOULDN’T do that – that by my silence I’m only increasing the stigma. There’s probably people who want to “out” me. It’s precisely because I work in a demanding field, take care of my family, and “seem normal,” they would tell me, that I should tell everyone who will listen about my diagnosis.

They’re probably right, but I can’t take the chance. It’s not about me anymore – it’s about my family, their privacy, and my ability to support them. There are laws that protect me, but I’m not so foolish to put my trust in them.

Besides, my credibility matters to me. As I wrote in October, it’s interesting that once you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, you no longer have the freedom to have the emotions others do. I know once my bipolar cat is out of the bag, all of my behavior is blamed on that. I’m not irritated because a co-worker missed a deadline, I’m in an agitated depression. I’m not in a good mood because I did well on a project, I’m in a manic high. No thank you. I’ll keep that cat in the bag.

None of this SHOULD be the case. And in reaction, some people go so far as to say there are no disorders at all, only different kinds of people. But I believe a label can be incredibly important and helpful. A label helped me to understand that I wasn’t just a pathetic loser, just as a different label helped me to understand why my father is the way he is. Labels give us an important context for emotions and behavior.

But just like sex and Merlot, labels have their time and place.

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