Disclaimer: The diagnoses in this story are oversimplified, included only to enhance the re-telling. Real diagnoses and resulting treatment are incredibly complicated. Please talk to a professional and do not use any of this story to evaluate your own health.
A mental health diagnosis shouldn’t be what defines you, but it certainly sets the tone for the work you will need to do for the rest of your life. It should never be an excuse for odd behavior, but rather an explanation to accompany an apology if needed. Knowing what’s brewing inside your brain might not change much of your day-to-day, but it can certainly put you at ease from the fear that you are an other – too different to be helped, too odd to ever live a normal life. It shouldn’t be what defines you, but in a world of labels, it’s much more powerful to affix one upon yourself than to have to fight against anything someone might assume upon you.
I did not consider myself diagnosable until my sophomore year in college. I was curled up in a tight ball on the rough, old carpet in my dorm room, sobbing hysterically while trying to make some weird vision go away. I didn’t know at the time that I was experiencing a flashback.
Seeing the daunting figure, which belonged to one of my parents, made me feel just as I did the first time when it happened—absolutely helpless. I was trapped within that moment and all I could do was sit down on the floor, hug myself and cry. It wasn’t until my boyfriend walked into the room and shook me that I looked up and understood I was not in my old home. I was, in fact, safe in my dorm. It took me a few minutes before I truly came back into the present moment.
The next day I went for an appointment with the school’s psychiatrist. They was advised that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn’t argue with the doctor, but I resolved that I knew better and could not have any such diagnosis. Her opinion was based on facts, years of practice and of course, looking at my reactions as I described my history. Mine was based on the sheer desire for it not to be so, with a healthy dose of stubbornness.
At the time, I thought that not admitting to having PTSD was a way to control it. As though, that’s when I would really have it.
If I admitted to it, that’s when I would need treatment of some kind. To see more doctors. That seemed like such a daunting hassle, it felt easier to just pretend that I didn’t have it. It’s not that I thought it was normal for me to curl up in a ball and cry suddenly, but until it happened during some catastrophic event, I figured I would be…fine?
At my follow-up appointment, I recall being shocked and scared as I was told that I also had Major Depressive Disorder too. For some reason, this was acceptable. Then, with a rush of emotion, I started to cry with relief. I had suspected that it couldn’t just be that I was “sensitive” or “lazy” when I physically couldn’t stop myself from crying, when every small thing made me think I’m a failure or that I should have more energy than I did. Maybe it wasn’t that I was making a conscious decision to be so weak or lazy—It was my body working against me.
Almost nine years later, I had a similar reaction to my new diagnosis. With my moods no longer being stuck in a low place, and flashbacks under control, I was able to talk about the symptoms that had always coincided with those concerns, but I never had a moment to properly consider. A few evaluations and appointments later and I had myself a new diagnosis— one which placed me on the bipolar spectrum. Yet again, I cried with relief.
Being told I had dysphoric moods with inattention issues explained every moment my mother called me annoying, every time I wiggled instead of sitting still. I wasn’t just some rude kid that had wanted to interrupt everyone. That focusing on a task proved akin to competing in a marathon at times. Sometimes I was beating myself up and other times, I was frantically trying to accomplish everything while my mood was up.
Only now do I understand the full complexity of myself. Now that I have opened up to the possibility to have someone look into what is going on, instead of closing myself off to something I desperately wanted to avoid admitting to.
Yet, with all of this relief, I couldn’t let a new question exit my brain: How could it be that the same person with the same personality had a new diagnosis?
When I was first diagnosed the DSM was still on version 4, and there was no proven way to explain my mood swings since I didn’t get manic. This diagnosis felt so uncertain, simply because it wasn’t the old trusted depression everyone knows about. In addition, the new label given to me is not normally given to people over the age of 18. Then again, neither is separation anxiety, and anyone in any sort of long-term relationship with me could assess this may be something I was afflicted with. In all, everything felt like shakier ground than what I was used to, yet, at the same time, more stable. This was a good time to remember that my diagnosis was not the entirety of who I was. And that, as a person, I was the same old me, just re-labeled.
There is a fine line between running away from a diagnosis and living inside of one.
It’s very tempting to keep your diagnosis as a safety blanket, to retreat back to its comfort when we act oddly or respond to other’s actions in a way that we cannot understand. It's important to avoid punishing yourself for who you are, just as it is important to avoid making excuses for yourself. Then we also tend to over-analyze ourselves... it’s one thing to be self-aware, it’s another thing to look for a label in every sneeze you produce.
It helped to set a goal for myself to avoid doing the aforementioned over-analysis. My goal was to regain a sense of normalcy, belonging.
Doctors are not perfect, but when it comes to us as their patients, I would ask that we resist the urge to do what the rest of the world would do with our new information— jump to the worst conclusions. Before you are a patient, you will always be a sister, a father, a lawyer, a yogi, an entrepreneur—a human. And as a human you will do irrational things, you hurt, you will rejoice, you will feel ambivalent at times.
Let yourself be that.