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.