I am asthma.
I am depression.
I am eczema.
I am diabetes [no- though “diabetic” may be a step closer to what I’m talking about]
What is wrong with these statements? People don’t say them. And why? Because people “have” illnesses- that doesn’t mean that they “are” those illnesses.
So why do I find myself saying “I am bipolar?” I am not. I realise you can also say “I have bipolar”. And I’m starting to be unsure that “have” is the right word either- it is more like, I experience bipolar. Though I’ll go with “have” for now. Bipolar is an illness and not a character trait. Of course, like other illnesses and other experiences, it shapes a person’s character and life. I was talking to someone yesterday at an awesome mental health related Reading Group: http://dragoncafe.co.uk/creative-groups/ and she said that you can’t recover until you accept that bipolar (or any other mental illness) does grow to be a part of you. But we agreed on what I have written above- that it doesn’t have to be your one defining feature; that it isn’t something you are. I have a leg. It is part of me. What on earth would people think if I started describing myself as “leg”? Hi, I’m Becky. I am armpit.
And I hope against hope against hope that my little sister never feels that she “is” diabetes.
Though the language may differ: I have depression; I am schizophrenic; I have borderline personality disorder… I think the “I am bipolar” disorder does encapsulate some of the experiences of people with mental health issues in general. Discussing mental illnesses is still difficult because, rightly or wrongly, people are scared that their illness will be seen as their defining feature. That whatever the semantics, people will come to think “Clara is depression”; “Michael is post-traumatic stress”; “Lauren is OCD”. (Names are chosen at random, here). Who wants that? Who wants (a) an illness and (b) a phrase that possibly encapsulates some of the most horrible experiences of their lives, to be the thing that people see when they are looked at? Why should it mean that and not: “I have had [insert experience]” or “I have/experience [insert illness]”? Why should it still be such a difficult curtain to see past?
Another woman I spoke to at the reading group said that she was a nurse many years ago and had seen people referred to as “the leg in bed nine” or “the sores in bed eight” and this is the same kind of thing I am talking about. How horrible, to be defined by something that is seen as being wrong with you?
And again, why is a mental health problem something that is “wrong” with you? To be explored, I feel, at a later date.