Mental Illness doesn’t define me (or anyone else), with a TED talk by Elyn Saks

(Updated. The post below is a repost. I recently came across Elyn Saks’ TED talk about her experiences with schizophrenia and thought I’d share both the link and my thoughts after reading her excellent memoir, The Center Cannot Hold.)

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.


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.


8 thoughts on “Mental Illness doesn’t define me (or anyone else), with a TED talk by Elyn Saks

  1. This post was very intriguing for me as I struggle with so much illness, both mental and physical. Honestly, I do sometimes define myself by my illnesses because it has taken over so much of my life at this point in time. That is something I am really trying to work on!

    Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kas, thanks for sharing. I think it’s hard NOT to define ourselves by illnesses, especially ones that alter our day-to-day lives as much as yours does and mine sometimes does. It takes some balance, both knowing that our lives are different than they would’ve been without the illness and knowing that the illness isn’t US but a part of us. It’s easy to wonder “where does (the illness) end and I begin?” I still struggle finding that balance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    My son hates to be defined by his disability. He has autism and learning disabilities, so he spends a lot of time trying to convince me that he’s ‘clever’, bless him. He is clever, just in a different way to other people. I bet none of my readers could spend hours talking about the different phases of twilight and the movements of the sun and how the times of the sunrise and sunset change over the course of a year! He’s not like other people and he never will be, but he’s Prince, not ‘autism’.

    For the same reason I rejected the term ‘survivor’ to describe me, because I am recovering from abuse as a child and during my first marriage. I finally realised that I was not a survivor – because that still allowed the abuse to define *me*. God defines me. He calls me blessed!

    I realised recently that by His grace I managed to move from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This amazes me! By the time I had sought treatment I’d already begun to heal, and that was only by grace! It hasn’t gone away. I still struggle with some things and I have learned I have to be ‘kind’ to myself, but I am a lot better post-EMDR than I was before. I’m not scared any more. I find myself doing things and then only afterwards do I realise that at one point I’d either have avoided it completely, or been incredibly anxious when doing it (whatever ‘it’ may be). I would have been irritable and tearful… and now I don’t even notice.

    Excellent post from Laura Droege; I had to share it.


    1. Thanks for the reblog, Sandy!

      PS: I find it interesting that you don’t use the word “survivor” to describe yourself. As you know, I’m pitching a novel about a woman who used to be in sex trafficking. In my pitch, I use the term “survivor” rather than the alternative “victim” because it sounded 1) more accurate, and 2) less helpless. But as my character isn’t a Christ-follower (yet), I can’t say that God defines her (or would define her if she were real and not a character in a novel.) My character doesn’t call herself a “survivor” or a “victim”; she just doesn’t talk about it. So your perspective makes me think twice about how I should convey the necessary info on her backstory.

      PS#2: I’m thankful for the way you display God’s power and grace in your life, and how you share it with your readers. It’s incredible. He is so good!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I watched Saks’ TED talk after reading her book (which I did after seeing the book mentioned on your blog). Really interesting how she says that true acceptance of her schizophrenia was a huge step in not letting it define her.


  4. Reading your post intrigues me and makes me want to watch her TED talk, which I’ve known about for a long time. I believe it’s one of the most popular TED talks ever – or maybe it’s one of the most popular mental health-themed talks – my bleary brain can’t recall.

    I read her memoir when it first came out and thought it was excellent. Saks is a great example of someone living well with schizophrenia. You brought up a key point – there are no lists of successful people with schizophrenia. I remember talking with my former psychiatrist and he called it a “forever” illness. Why he didn’t include bipolar, I don’t know, but I always thought that was THE worst thing possible.

    Thanks for writing about this because I have a feeling watching her talk will be inspiring!


    1. I recommended Saks’ memoir to my mother, who attends church with a man with schizophrenia. They sit near each other every Sunday morning, and she told me today that after reading Saks’ portrayal of the disease from “the insider’s POV” has clarified much of what is going on with her fellow churchgoer’s behavior. I didn’t know about her TEDtalk until I saw it on Pinterest recently. She’s fascinating! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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