“What a relief to finally have a name for my suffering!”
Few who receive a stigmatizing mental health diagnosis utter these words. A bad diagnosis can make what seemed like just a really bad summer a never-ending life-long sentence of despair. If this applies to you, take heart! This does not have to be the case! Diagnoses, though helpful, cause harm unless you frame them differently than most doctors will. Read on to hear what I did to bring healing and hope back to my life in spite of my diagnosis.
It has been said that the body achieves what the mind believes. Our minds are incredibly powerful and they shape our reality and our futures, sometimes even down to what illnesses we get. We don’t just think our way into mental illness, of course, but don’t forget that people can make dramatic improvements in their daily functioning and quality of life just by changing their thought patterns. And so we could also say that the mind achieves what it believes about itself.
Clearing harmful religious structures from my life in favor of a hope-filled Christianity healed me partially. The other essential change was ignoring books and scholarship describing my illness and what this meant about myself and my life trajectory. This was transformational.
Labels are permanent, and mental illness is sometimes, though by no means always, permanent. Research is not bad and reading scholarship is not bad, perhaps, so long as one takes it with a grain of salt. In general I don’t recommend it.
What makes mental illness permanent? Not staying in treatment. Abusing drugs and alcohol. The first step is to acknowledge that you are greatly reducing your likelihood of a good life by being reckless and wishy-washy about treatment. Assuming you’re being careful, what else makes serious mental illness permanent?
Reducing yourself to a label and seeing yourself as nothing more than a label and a set of symptoms that will always be there until you die.
Mental illnesses can last a life time, and in bad cases we probably need to stay on medicine, but we cannot leave it at that. As soon as we frame mental illness as permanent, we’re doomed to stagnate….or get worse!
As people, we read books or watch movies about life all the time. Eventually we can’t tell if we are experiencing life the way we are because the book we’ve read changed us, or because the the movie was so accurate that it captured us perfectly! Diagnoses are like books about ourselves. Once we have them, it means we have found something that describes a part of us perfectly. But unfortunately we then may let them define us completely. And our mind achieves what it believes about itself. The illness becomes permanent.
Once we have a mental health diagnosis and agree with it, then we know what we are to move away from. It is not that we have a container to hold us permanently. No! Instead think of it this way: we have a direction. A goal: lasting stability. Maybe even a full recovery! A diagnosis is a sign that we must do things that move us out of this symptom cluster. In other words, a motion away from our illness.
Above all, never give up hope that you will get better!
If you have a doctor who says you’re only going to get worse, and who doesn’t listen to you when you say you want to keep things positive, get a different doctor! Negativity is poison for your brain. Obviously if you’re trying to get off of a mood-stabilizer (like Lithium or Lamictal) and you are bipolar, you probably shouldn’t go off of it. I would not trust a doctor if they told me I did not need the medicine I take because I know that this is what keeps me high-functioning. But if a doctor paints an overarching doom and gloom picture, get a second opinion.
I will conclude with an example of my own experience:
I once had a doctor who said in my first visit that I was on a low dose of what I was on and that, even though I was doing great, I could expect to double it within the next year! And then continue to go up on it. This is a bad sign! Turns out she had been an emergency room doctor and was used to people in absolute crisis. It was her first year in private practice. She gave me the right medicine change, but I quickly got a different doctor.
We must find doctors who have realism – who don’t just tell us to go off our meds – paired with hope and optimism. Labels and diagnoses frequently take away our ability to see that our suffering might not be permanent. And therefore labels can make the mind achieve the doom that doctors tell us about and that we most fear.