Mental Illness Identity vs Mental Health Identity

Jordan Brown

I'm trying something new.

Yesterday, I asked my Twitter followers for help in determining today's newsletter topic.

It turns out, I got a great suggestion from a long-time Twitter follower and subscriber to this newsletter.

Here it is:

...something I find interesting is whether we can actually know ourselves, or if we can only know our depression/anxiety/whatever, and is there a real difference? Can we figure out who we are outside of our symptoms? Or are they "us"?

What great questions.

This is actually something I've thought about a lot, so I'm going to give you my honest response.

Before you jump to conclusions, I hope you'll read all the way through.

Where It Started With My Mental Illness Identity

When I first really started to struggle with anxiety and OCD symptoms, they quickly consumed my life.

I could lose hours to them.

What I mean is that I could pick at my skin, mindlessly digging at my back or arms, while staring off into the distance. I could get stuck in front of the mirror checking my skin for any new blemishes. This made my anxiety skyrocket.

It was maddening.

I felt out of control, and I soon started to identify myself as a person with terrible issues.

The issues became my identity.

And when I started to speak more openly about my mental health issues, I mentioned these issues as being who I was.

At first, I was hesitant and ashamed.

Then, I was proud and owned it.

I was a proud mental illness.

Of course, this process took years, but I started to see myself as anxious and as OCD, but in a good way.

I thought that is where I would stay with my identity.

But, as Heraclitus said, "Nothing endures but change," and my identity was no exception.

You see, I've realized something about "bad" events and circumstances.

They seem extra bad when they first happen. When I had to take medicine for depression, when I was in the midst of picking at my skin for hours at a time, I was stuck in the moment. Everything was raw and immediate, and because it was raw and immediate, it felt eternal. It felt like forever.

I see now that this was faulty thinking brought on by the weight of what I was experiencing.

I needed space. I needed to add more experiences into the mix.

As I continued on my mental health journey, learning about both my needs and the needs of others, I realized I didn't fully understand my own life.

Because here's the devastating trick that mental illness plays on you: It makes you feel like you're the only person in the world experiencing what you're experiencing.

As I continued to talk and write about my own mental health issues, I heard from more and more people struggling with their own mental health challenges.

This gave me perspective.

This gave me an opportunity to see my struggles in a new light.

This was when things started to change for me and how I viewed my identity.

A New Mental Health Identity

I have now been writing about mental health online since 2016.

I have now connected with thousands of individuals who, like me, have struggled--or are struggling--with their mental health.

I can now see my story alongside the stories of the people I've come to know.

This process of understanding my story as part of a bigger collection of stories has changed me--and it's changed how I view myself.

I no longer see myself as my mental illnesses.

Because I've come to know that I'm more than my mental illnesses.

We all are.

There is simply no way that one illness or one symptom can describe you as the complex human being that you are.

I know I'm venturing into dangerous territory here because I've heard from some folks in the disability community that they hate "person-first language" and that "identity-first language" is the only way to go.

As a social worker, I was trained to think of person-first language, as separating the person from their illness or disability--as the only respectful path.

Now I know that life is not as simple as that.

I realize that forcing someone to say "I'm bipolar" or "I live with bipolar" is arguing about semantics.

What matters is what a person thinks is right for them.

The "for them" is what we're discussing right now.

How do you figure out what is right for you?

For me, I think you have to live it. You need to live through what ails you and come out on the other side.

You also need to adopt a growth mindset, as described so eloquently by Dr. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset.

And now that I've been writing and talking about my mental health for many years, I know that I'm not my mental illness. I can now see the symptoms for what they are--symptoms.

Because I've chosen to face my mental health issues every day, I've come to accept myself as the constellation of peculiar traits and issues that I am.

I'm not one thing, and I never will be.

So, in the end, this was a really roundabout way to say, "Yes. I believe we can figure out who we are outside of our symptoms."

It's not an easy process. In fact, it can be pretty darn grueling at times.

But showing up on a daily basis to face my demons has made me realize that they might not be demons after all. They are part of me, and because they are part of me, that means there must be other parts.

There is a part of me that is kind. There is a part of me that is selfish. There's also a part of me that still picks at his skin from time to time.

But what's most important is that all the parts of me come together to create a beautiful whole.

If I could go back in time ten years and talk to my 24-year-old self, I would say this:

"I know this feels terrible right now. I know this seems like the end of the world, but it's a trick. Mental illness doesn't define you. If you can stay open to it, you will learn so much. And if you keep learning, you will keep growing. If you do that, you'll get to experience some really profound things."

That's what I would say.

That's what I am saying.