Getting any sort of diagnosis comes with it’s challenges.
But the thing that makes any sort of mental health diagnosis so challenging is that it’s about your brain. And your brain is you.
Physical diagnoses present their own difficulties, but rarely do they make us reflect on our identity and sense of self. I have asthma. It was officially diagnosed as an adult which is unusual and meant that I haven’t had the good fortune of ‘growing out of it’ as such. It affects my life every day. At no point, however, does it affect my perception of myself. It’s not my fault I have asthma. I just have it.
Having a mental health problem is different. An illness that affects your mind, which is so intrinsically linked with your personality, inevitably results in introspection. Is it me? Is this my fault? Is this who I am now?
I am a huge advocate of saying mental illness doesn’t define us, but identity does change with diagnosis. How can something that affects our lives so much not become part of who we are?
One of the hardest things about having an eating disorder is that it overwhelms your entire life. It becomes who you are. Trying to shake that identity was – alongside weight gain – the hardest part of recovery for me. You have to relearn, rebuild, and recreate your personality. Eating disorders become interwoven with everything you know about yourself, and to undo that is hard. Really, really hard. But it is possible.
I did it.
It’s not just eating disorders though, it’s any mental illness. I remember exactly what happened when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and can play it back like a film. I sat calmly as my pharmacological options were explained to me, knowing as a mental health nurse exactly what side effects were likely with each one. My consultant asked me “how does it feel to know you have a severe and enduring mental illness?” “I am relieved,” I said. Relieved I had an explanation, that I had new options, that everything made sense. “Thank you,” I told him happily as I left. Then I got to my car, patient medication leaflets in hand, and cried and cried. My sense of who I was had shifted. I was everything I was before, with a new element thrown in. I was still me, but with bipolar.
I am not somebody who will say “I am bipolar,” I prefer “I have bipolar.” However, I always used to say “I am anorexic” and not “I have anorexia”, which to me shows how intrinsically eating disorders worm their way into the fabric of our being. That’s completely personal to me as my preference and I know others will feel differently which is fine. We all view our identities differently – that’s part of what makes us who we are. But to say that mental health problems have no impact on our identities at all is probably a little naive. I’m sure there will be people out there who disagree and that is great for them, but for the rest of us I think we would be lying if we denied the wider impact of a diagnosis.
I know it’s not my fault I had an eating disorder, and it’s not my fault I have bipolar disorder. It took me a long time to reach this conclusion, but I am confident in it. I am not my mental illness, I know that, but I do have a mental illness. It’s not who I am, but it is one of many thousands of things that make me who I am.
My identity is not just ‘mentally ill person’. It is many, many other things too. One of those things, however, is ‘person with a mental illness’, and that’s inescapable for me.
Life changes after diagnosis. WE change after diagnosis.
It’s okay to admit that.