Every few days, I’ll be scrolling through one social media or another and I’ll see a post baldly stating, ‘Don’t let your mental illness define you!’ or ‘You are more than your mental illness!’ These have always irritated me but I didn’t really stop to investigate why. But I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently, both in the personal sense and the abstract, and I think I’m starting to make sense of it.
As a person, I can be a bit perverse. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I instantly feel compelled to prove them wrong. And so, when these posts tell me that I am not defined by my mental illness, a part of me starts yelling, “But I am defined by my mental illness!” Childish, I know, but true. The thing is that I don’t necessarily think that that is a bad thing. Of course I’m defined by my mental health problems: they take up significant time and effort and emotion. Why wouldn’t I feel defined by something like that? It has defined me, it has shaped me in the same way that any big part of my life has, like my love for songwriting has, like my love and loyalty to my friends and family has. Anything that has caused significant emotion in me, whether it be good or bad, has become a part of me and sometimes those parts are big parts.
But an important thing to remember, I think, is that our identities are constantly shifting and changing. What defines us now won’t necessarily define us in the future. With everything that happens to us, our lives get bigger and grow around the old parts, the same way the roots of trees grow around any obstacle they find in their path. Right now, my mental health overwhelms pretty much everything but that may not always be the case. The medication might start to work, helping me to manage the symptoms, or something bigger might happen in my life. The point is things change.
On the other hand, I could choose it, choose to make mental health a ‘defining’ part of my life. I could choose to turn it into something, to use my experience. And I think that that is something I need to do. I don’t think I can ignore what is such a significant part of my life or view it as something to just get past. That feels disrespectful to the amount of time and effort and emotion that I – and the people in my life – have had to put into this. If life is about the journey rather than the destination, then this is an important part of the journey and, like every significant moment, I will be adding this to my backpack to carry with me.