Mental illness doesn’t define me (or anyone else)

Recently, I’ve been researching schizophrenia. One of my minor characters in my work-in-progress has this illness, hence the need to understand what is happening in her mind. So my Christmas reading list hasn’t been of the cheeriest sort.

I’ve noticed that there’s a hierarchy for mental illnesses for the general public. When people hear about “major depression”, they (often mistakenly) think they understand, and most, I believe, aren’t frightened by it.

Bipolar is below that: the mania distances the non-ill person from understanding, volatile mood swings—seemingly without reason—make others wary of being hurt, and no matter how under control things are, many would hesitate at, say, signing a business contract with an unproven bipolar author. (Ahem.)

Schizophrenia is below that.

Schizophrenia has a reputation. The words “devastating” and “frightening” seem to be the adjectives of choice for its description. There are no lists of “successful people with schizophrenia” as there are with major depression and bipolar disorder. Few associate hope or success or fulfillment with it; they associate psychosis and isolation and misery instead.

Enter Elyn Saks’ memoir The Center Cannot Hold.

Among other things, Saks is Oxford university graduate, Yale Law School graduate, endowed professor at University of Southern California Gould School of Law, happily married, and has close friends and good relationships with her colleagues.

Impressive.

Oh, by the way, she has schizophrenia. She spent time in a psychiatric hospital while at Oxford, dealt with numerous breakdowns and medication woes and terrifying thoughts while pursuing her law degree, and continues to battle the disease.

This is a wonderful, honest, and powerful memoir. One thing really stood out to me: she portrays and views herself as a person with an illness, not a person defined by an illness.

All too often, I read accounts of mentally ill people, and the illness isn’t just a big thing in their life, it’s the only thing that counts. It filters everything. To a certain extent, that’s true; a severe mental illness will filter how we see life. It certainly affects every aspect of our lives. It definitely has for me.

But for some people, the illness becomes their entire identity. Saks refuses to allow that to happen.  She fights hard for autonomy, a sense of self apart from her illness.

“Who was I, at my core? Was I primarily a schizophrenic? Did that illness define me? Or was it an ‘accident’ of being—and only peripheral to me rather than the ‘essence’ of me? It’s been my observation that mentally ill people struggle with these questions perhaps even more than those with serious physical illnesses, because mental illness involves your mind and your core self as well. A woman with cancer isn’t Cancer Woman; a man with heart disease isn’t Diseased Heart Guy; a teenager with a broken leg isn’t The Broken Leg Kid. But if, as our society seems to suggest, good health was partly mind over matter, what hope did someone with a broken mind have?” (page 255)

After taking Zyprexa,

“my final and most profound resistance to the idea I was mentally ill began to give way. Ironically, the more I accepted I had a mental illness, the less the illness defined me” (page 304).

I’ve found that to be true for myself as well. I accepted my diagnosis quickly; it explained so many things from my past. I’ve also found that the more open I am about the illness, the less it defines me.

As a Christian, I define myself first with my relationship to Christ. The bipolar disorder is there. It mingles with all of my various identities—wife, mom, writer, Christian—and colors them, like a child scribbling with crayon in a book. The words on the page are still there, more or less readable depending on the intensity of the coloring, but the crayon marks change the way I read them.

It would be ridiculous to deny their presence.

It would be sad to define the page only by the crayon marks, as if that were nothing else on the page.

True, some words are obscured; others are blurred but legible. But they’re still there. I’m still a person, someone who God made and loves, and this illness doesn’t define me.

This memoir isn’t Saks’ attempt to wave pom-poms at psychiatric patients and cheer: if I can do it, you can too! Far from it. Not everyone can accomplish what she has in her life, and she acknowledges this.

But the book reminds us of this truth: no matter what illness–mental or otherwise–we might have, it does not define who we really are. We are so much more than a diagnosis. We are all humans, precious and valuable.

And that is worth cheering about.

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13 thoughts on “Mental illness doesn’t define me (or anyone else)

  1. This is such an interesting post, Laura. I appreciate you sharing your own experiences and also the excerpts from that memoir.

    Have you ever read Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree? It is about the relationships parents have with children who are very different from them in significant ways; it covers 10 categories such as deafness, dwarfism, autism, schizophrenia, etc. In many of these chapters he explores whether a certain condition is the person’s identity or something they “have” — and there is quite a bit of controversy in some cases; e.g. is deafness a culture to be celebrated or a problem to be solved? It was pretty eye-opening for me — and it came to mind as I read your post. It’s just fascinating what Saks says about how the more she accepted her illness, the less it defined her.

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    1. I haven’t read Solomon’s book, but I wrote down the title in my growing to-be-read list; it sounds fascinating. It’s an interesting dilemma: should we celebrate our “different” issue or view it as a problem? There’s an element of that in the mental illness community as well, I believe, and certainly in different cultures. In some areas/times, hallucinations might’ve been viewed as a gift from the gods or a sign of a special spiritual connection; in our culture, we see it as scary or a medical illness to be treated. Hm. Lots of things to think about.

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  2. Laura, this was such an interesting post that I began to write a comment which turned into a blog post of my own so I’ve not clicked ‘post comment’ but will put it on my blog with a link to this post.

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      1. I just wanted to add that I am studying for a degree and am in the middle of an assignment. I know I can do well because I got 93% on the last one, but I’m trying not to worry about it. I’ve fallen slightly behind, but my (very nice) tutor has just emailed to say I can have an extension. My husband is going away for two days this week, and when he is gone I find the PTSD stuff significantly increases. I also have my second appointment with the psychologist tomorrow (bad timing) and am rather anxious in general. BUT as I was slowly panicking I recalled this post and the memoir you wrote about. I suddenly thought, if she can do it, so can I. Thank you, again, for such a timely post! I will see if I can get hold of a copy of that book. It may be useful.

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      2. Wow, you’ve got a lot going on, Sandy! I’ll be praying for you. The book is good; just be aware that she’s not coming from a Christian perspective, so she approaches things from a different perspective than I do, and it’s not a “how-to” guide by any means. Best of luck on your assignment.

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  3. I too read “The Center Cannot Hold” and found it compelling! You have great taste in books, my dear! Do you think you might ever be interested in writing your memoir? (I’d buy it!) I know you’ve written fiction books and forgive me if you’ve answered that question already in past posts. I’m a space cadet ever since I got back from Tahoe. And to be honest, I was a space cadet before we left.

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    1. I haven’t written a memoir yet, though I’d like to at some future point. (I’ve never talked about it online, so, no, I haven’t answered that question!)

      Space cadet, hmm? Sometimes I feel that way, too. I’ll be looking for a word and can’t find it. I can see the object, see the letters in my head, and can’t find the word itself! This usually happens to me in conversation and not in writing, thankfully!

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      1. We have a black plastic storage carrier on top of the Suburu I often drive that says “Space Cadet” – if that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is! Hee hee!

        And I look forward to your memoir when it comes out because it’ll rock!

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