When I speak to conference rooms full of people on the topic of mental health, the most common themes to pass over my lips are: self-compassion, mindfulness, and the importance of cultivating courage, kindness, and an open mind. The most prominent concept I speak to is change. What journalists seem to be driven to write after hearing me speak is another story, one wracked with sensationalism, voyeurism, and an incredibly narrow view. I have yet to read an article about me that does not reference in the title the infamous buzz words attached to my name: my diagnoses.
A number of years back, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the worst of all of my psychiatric name-tags I’ve acquired over the course of my 20s. I work at a university, I hold a Masters degree, I am a therapist, an artist, I have won awards for mental health advocacy, and none of this is really a big deal – except if you remember that I apparently live with schizophrenia.
I just preface my resume with the words “I have schizophrenia” and I dispel my reader’s hope that anything I say will be of relevance, or just as inaccurately – they may come to believe that I am some kind of hero. Of course, neither of these extremes are true. But people who survive a diagnosis of a major mental illness are often placed in the category of victim, or champion. And in the mean time, all I am trying to do is to be a human being.
What would be more helpful is to accept people with all of their challenges and vulnerabilities, to not force them to put on some sort of mask in order to prove that they are over their bad days. Bad days, bad months, bad years – so what? What are we so afraid of? I once had a relative say to me that I had reached my quota of bad days years ago. It is precisely this kind of pressure to be perfect or to be “recovered” that leads people away from the self-compassionate, tolerant view that would allow them to be resilient, full human beings. I do have bad days, but they’re really not that as bad as they used to be. In fact, everyone has bad days, but if you have a mental illness diagnosis, they are seen as somehow different – they are viewed through a pathological lens. And even though I do still have some bad days, I personally do not think too much about my diagnoses anymore on a regular basis. However, I know that many people who meet me can’t seem to forget it. I typically get one of two responses:
“Wow, isn’t she amazing; doing all that with schizophrenia!” or
“There’s no way that woman has schizophrenia. She’s not representative. What a fraud.”
As I am aware that both views are rooted in stigma, I try to ignore them. But this same predicament affects my clients, and many of my friends. It is certainly a reflection of a larger social injustice issue. So I am speaking up. I try to be patient with people, but I am still waiting for the day when someone might meet me somewhere in between these extremes, somewhere in the middle, where I wouldn’t have to to play either a victim or a superhero.