idefineme

Maybe My Mental Illness Does Define Me. And?

Every so often, I’ll get an email from a reader that says something like, “Sam, you can’t let your mental illness define you! You are so much more than that!”

(Has anyone else noticed how this is a distinct theme in my life? Since when does everyone know me better than I do? But OK.)

What if I told you that my mental illness does define me? And what if I also told you that I am much more than that? That these two realities are not mutually exclusive?

I know, it’s mind-blowing.

Fun fact: I have early onset bipolar disorder, along with generalized anxiety and OCPD. Which means, for most of my life (if not all of it), mental illness has shaped and impacted my lived experiences.

It is the filter through which I have seen the world. It’s as ubiquitous as the air around me.

The ways that I struggled to adapt in the face of this trauma has taught me so much about who I am and where my values lie. It has taught me resilience, persistence, and optimism; I’ve also glimpsed a kind of darkness and despair that has undoubtedly left its mark on me.

So when someone tells me that mental illness doesn’t “define” me, I’m totally perplexed.

How could something that I’ve grappled with for my entire life — something that has not only impacted and contextualized my experiences, but also helped to reveal the character and values that I embody — have no bearing on what defines me?

People will go ahead and define themselves based on the weirdest things, like their taste in movies or their passion for knitting or their sailing hobby (no judgment here, you do you). But I can’t say that my experiences with mental illness are a major part of who I am?

I think what I find particularly annoying about this suggestion is that the person who says it to me is basically saying that they are in a position to determine what does and does not define me.

And, you know, it’s almost always someone who has no experience with mental illness.

Which begs the question: Why are people of privilege always trying to overwrite the narratives of folks who are marginalized? Why do they not trust us to tell our own stories, to name our own identities?

As a transgender person with mental illness, this is especially frustrating. Everyone has an opinion on my identity and how I should (or shouldn’t) talk about it. They know my gender better than I do. They know my illness better than I do.

Apparently everyone but me is an authority on my life.

So many people of privilege have heard me articulate my truth, but instead of accepting it as I’ve written it, they insist on squeezing me into a framework that they prefer — whether it’s misgendering me or asking me to separate who I am from my disorders, the implication is that my identity does not belong to me and that my lived experiences are invalid.

The simple truth is that I do not know who I am without mental illness because I’ve never lived a life without it. 

Does that make me a “perpetual victim”? Does that mean, while I wallow in my past trauma, I’ll never be able to find happiness because I’ll be stuck in the past?

Uh, no. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.

But it’s weird how many people write me to suggest that I won’t be happy if I keep talking about what I’ve been through. They seem to have missed the memo — I am happy. Being silent about what I was going through was one of the major sources of my unhappiness, actually.

Coming face-to-face with what I’ve been through, writing about it publicly, and integrating it into my identity has been super empowering for me. I’ve let go of the shame and sadness and, instead, begun to do the important work of healing by no longer attempting to outrun my past.

I’ve found community, too, in being honest about my struggles. That community has been essential in affirming my experiences and feeling whole again.

I’m not a big believer in pretending that my trauma never happened. I actually believe in confronting the scary shit so that I can begin to heal. If that makes me a victim, I don’t really care. By all means, call me a victim if it helps you sleep at night.

Honestly, though, even if I chose to label myself a victim and described my experiences that way, that would also be my prerogative. I can choose to engage with and process my suffering however I damn well please.

This obsession with telling people they shouldn’t call themselves victims or identify with their struggles — as if there’s anything wrong with affirming what we’ve been through — seems to imply that we should ignore the realities of our lives and, instead, pretend that our pain does not exist.

This whole conversation around not defining ourselves based on our struggles (or otherwise taking on a role of “victim”) looks to me like a really shitty attempt at erasing and overwriting the experiences of folks with trauma and/or disabilities.

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand the impulse to tell me how I should and shouldn’t identify, but what I will say is this: Until you’ve lived my life, it’s probably safe to say that I have a much better idea of who I am than you, Reader-Of-One-Article-I-Wrote-Six-Months-Ago.

(Do you go up to someone you’ve just met and say, “I know your whole life story”? Because, if not…)

And really, let’s be honest for a quick sec. Before you tell me that being a “professional victim” will never make me happy, it might be better to work on your own insecurities first — starting with why me being honest about my trauma is so damn threatening to you.

 

24 thoughts on “Maybe My Mental Illness Does Define Me. And?

  1. Dre M Harris says:

    People have said this to me, not about my mental illness, which actually doesn’t define me all that much, but about my physical disability; I shouldn’t let it define me. How would I prevent it from defining me? It affects literally every aspect of how I relate to the world, in a way no ablebodied person could fully understand.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

    Yay, Sam! When will people GET that our reality is, as you say, lived experience?

    Fer krissake, as a Pediatric Emergency Medicine specialist, I saw a lot of pitbull vs child injuries. I won’t describe them. They are too horrible. And every one of them was “the family dog, grew up with the kids.”

    Somehow I got into a conversation with some pro-pitbull activists, and when I mentioned my lived experience with this particular group of breeds, they started shouting at me that this wasn’t true, it was a smear campaign…I said, do you mean to tell me that the tens of horrible pitbull injuries was imaginary? They just kept screaming. I gave up.

    I’m not talking about pitbulls here. I only used that example to show how people can completely discount another person’s lived experience, if it doesn’t fit their agenda or their preconceived notions of how someone else’s world should work.

    I’ve had countless people on my blog and in person tell me that I can “beat” my mental illness by “just thinking positively.”

    Well, um, right. “Think lovely thoughts and you’ll never be suicidal again.” Oh yeah. That and seven bucks will buy you a cup of coffee.

    And yes, my mental illness defines who I am. How could it not? I’m not happy about many aspects of that, but I accept it, and I work with it, and I explore it, and this is my life’s work now. I have a disability, true, and it defines what I can and cannot do. I get frustrated, sure. Why wouldn’t I? My mental illness and I hold space together. Damn it.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. ideaphilosopher says:

    Allowing it to define you, in the way you do, is owning your story. It takes courage to do that and I applaud you. I agree, mental illness AND allowing yourself to accept that there absolutely is more to you is so true. They are not mutually exclusive. Neither is pain and happiness. Shame and acceptance. The whole picture involves BOTH. I love hearing your story. Sending love and gratitude ❤️💙💚💜

    Liked by 1 person

  4. suthrngirlsings51 says:

    You know….at first I reacted…thinking hey..he’s a bit angry but then I read more and realized you are right….I have come on the other side of abuse and I have said “no – it doesn’t define me”..meaning it doesn’t speak that I’m weak, although there were moments I felt I was near collapse….but in the sense that it defines me and who I have become on the other side of emotional and verbal beat downs, then yes..I suppose it does define me. and now I have a story to share with others, in the hopes of helping someone..and I’m thankful for the opportunity….You are also correct…that one can’t say they know how you feel or what you are going through or have a right to judge you or I, if they have not lived our life or walked in our shoes. Thanks for the insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. cheyvsworld says:

    I’ve heard this many time and the same old “your using your illness as an excuse” excuse me? If you felt the anxiety I am feeling right now or the anger that I have raging through me then please do not speak

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chris says:

    Sam, thank you. I’m still new to your blog, but your eloquent, thought-filled words give voice to the marginalized in such an accessible, assertive way. These posts should be included as required reading in a feminist/critical-cultural communication class.

    Great piece. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. sandracharrondotcom says:

    “Coming face-to-face with what I’ve been through, writing about it publicly, and integrating it into my identity has been super empowering for me”…love this and I couldn’t have said it better myself. I don’t know who I am without my mental illness so it completely defines me. Plus it’s no different than a diabetic who can’t imagine not using insuline. Nobody ever says, “Being diabetic doesn’t define you” when clearly it’s a huge defining aspect of who that person is. PS: You’re thoughts are so well articulated, I found myself nodded to all of your points. So glad I stumbled across your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. angelabora says:

    “But it’s weird how many people write me to suggest that I won’t be happy if I keep talking about what I’ve been through. They seem to have missed the memo — I am happy. Being silent about what I was going through was one of the major sources of my unhappiness, actually.

    Coming face-to-face with what I’ve been through, writing about it publicly, and integrating it into my identity has been super empowering for me. I’ve let go of the shame and sadness and, instead, begun to do the important work of healing by no longer attempting to outrun my past.

    I’ve found community, too, in being honest about my struggles. That community has been essential in affirming my experiences and feeling whole again.”

    YES YES YES. THANK YOU. ❤ On Feb 12, 2016 21:26, "Lets Queer Things Up!" wrote:

    > Sam Dylan Finch posted: “Every so often, I’ll get an email from a reader > that says something like, “Sam, you can’t let your mental illness define > you! You are so much more than that!” (Has anyone else noticed how this is > a distinct theme in my life? Since when does everyone know” >

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kit Hand (@nowthiskid) says:

    You put into words something I have been thinking and feeling for a while now. My trauma has shaped every part of my life, having chronic illness has shaped every part of my life. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences and, for better or for worse, I LIKE who I am today.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. amybalot says:

    Yes, this! I also have some hormonal problems and skin conditions. When you put it all together, it does define a large part of me. You also get the people who say you shouldn’t think about or talk about your illness(es) as much and somehow this will make them less prominent in your life. This is crap, because if they are influencing you in some way, every waking moment, you’re going to be thinking about them.

    But yes, I’ve found the same thing: people who don’t have any experience with mental illness tell me I’m not defined by my mental illnesses, probably because talking about them makes them uncomfortable. But I am defined by them, in that they influence almost every aspect of my life.

    >>The simple truth is that I do not know who I am without mental illness because I’ve never lived a life without it. <<
    Same here. I've often referred to my manic episodes as "my personality," in that that is exactly how I define myself and my personality. I've also found that writing about things is empowering, especially since, as a child, my whole family acted like mental illness was something to be ashamed of.

    Like

  11. sunburnsideup says:

    Oooh, I love this. Thank you for sharing. I can relate as a genderqueer person whose had depression and eating disorder and anxiety for more than half their life. I am tired of being told how to feel and how to “fix” my problems – mental illness – as if I don’t know myself and what I need to manage my mental illness.

    Thank you for articulating this so thoughtfully and candidly. I really appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

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