How we define ourselves is perhaps far more important than we wish to believe and has far-reaching consequences.
Many of us naturally define ourselves by our gender, religion or ethnicity, by social class, occupation or educational attainments. Others find the roles they inhabit in life (we all have plenty) as mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers are far more important. Some may define themselves through their appearance putting great store by their physical attributes, others through their exercise or health pursuits; gym junkie, black belt, keen swimmer. Some will view themselves as listeners or helpers, some will be more interested in their personality traits; introverted or extroverted, confident or shy, laid back or temperamental and the list goes on.
When we stop to consider how we define ourselves, the pictures we craft, the images we paint, we are also reminded of how others present themselves. Often we see people differently to how they view themselves, the contrast between what they are comfortable showing us and what we see, being either mildly different or sometimes poles apart.
This idea of completely opposing views, of people’s understanding of themselves being contradictory to how we view them seems far more acute in mental health circles.
Many people with mental health issues may have seen their lives become smaller. They may no longer be able to hold down the job they once had. They lose their role, the satisfaction, the stimulation and challenges that employment provided. They no longer travel to and from work, getting irate in traffic jams or crushed on buses or the tube. The habitual early morning read of the newspaper or the secretive read of ‘Fifty Shades’ (no accounting for taste), no longer part of their routine. The smiles and frowns and interactions of the commuters all but gone and alongside this, the colleagues and friends which were once a crucial part of their social circle sadly drift away, moving on without a backwards glance.
They stop necessarily participating in the things they once enjoyed, whether that is a local book club, swimming regularly, visiting art galleries, having a coffee. Withdrawing from life, no longer finding pleasure in the things that they once enjoyed or finding the activities themselves impossible, their lives become even smaller, insularity now a key feature.
Friendships outside of work may change. Those who they presumed would understand simply do not; others stick around for a time but become bored when one can’t pull ourselves together. The glue that is family relationships may not hold as tight as we once thought, maybe spouses and partners try to do their best but can’t fully understand, maybe our weekly movie nights and the quality time we once looked forward to doesn’t excite us as it once did. Children may now be more stressful than rewarding, their demands overwhelming; collecting them from school and trying to hide from the other mothers, after school activities when we really just want to go home and curl up in bed, football on a Saturdays, ballet on Sundays, cooking meals bedtime stories, woes and upsets all feel like too much.
When you have fallen down the rabbit hole and have no distinguishable identity left, when everything that you once understood about yourself has turned to rubble at your feet, it is natural to feel terrified and it’s even more natural to cling to the only tangible thing that appears to be left; your diagnosis.
Catherine Zeta Jones was interviewed recently by InStyle Magazine. Jones came out publically in 2010 and admitted that she was struggling with Bipolar Disorder, brought about by the stress of supporting her husband Michael Douglas, who was undergoing treatment for throat cancer. Recently she was as equally candid again when it was reported that she had admitted herself to hospital to get the disorder once more back under control. In an interview with the above magazine, she was quoted as saying "It's not easy," she admits. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to shout out my personal issues from the rooftops, but with my bipolar becoming public, I hope fellow sufferers will know it's completely controllable. I hope I can help remove any stigma attached to it, and that those who don't have it under control will seek help with all that is available to treat it."
Unfortunately, it appears that in talking honestly and openly, Jones has unknowingly colluded with one of the many myths regarding mental illness.
A lot of people have been jumping up and down, firing away frantically at their computers since her interview, so incensed with indignation that someone in the public eye should dare to perpetuate a myth and in doing so to have added generously to the already stupendous lack of understanding and stigmatization clearly prevalent in today's society.
According to many, Bipolar Disorder is a chronic illness and by all accounts regardless of medication regimes, psychotherapy and other non-medical practices, people are still continuously struggling, unable to get the so called 'beast' under control.
Some of you may be expecting this post to be as equally irate, for me to be as naively impassioned as many others. Of course I could entertain and delight you with 'tales from the gloom' (if you really want me to), whilst sitting here rubbing my hands together in the knowledge that the dogma and assertions that help me navigate my life are still securely and firmly in place.
However, that just wouldn’t do. My diagnosis whilst a part of who I am, does not encase my whole identity. I am not threatened or frightened as my rabbit hole precariously spins out of sight by anyone who has the intelligence and insight to speak out and let it be known that as hard as mental illness can be to live with and regardless of the additional challenges it can and does create, one can learn to manage and live with it.
Neither do I take the stigma that is ever present in society, the understanding and beliefs about my place in the world, my capabilities, my limitations, my worth and incorporate and adopt it as my own - until all I am doing is reflecting back an ideology upheld by the masses who haven’t been touched by madness and have no comprehension of how or what that means or entails.
Bipolar Disorder is manageable, though it takes more than medication, psychotherapy, alternative therapies and so forth to manage it.
The bottom line is it takes constant self-awareness and insight, a rigorous understanding of ones own mood and cycles, discipline, structure, routine, knowledge and understanding, and above all, responsibility!
As easy as it might be to soak up everything you read, to surround yourself with literature that supports your belief structure, to become trapped in the rather crude and self-limiting medical model, to acquiesce to the beliefs of one’s professionals, psychiatrists, nurses, support staff, it is much more important to question everything. No information or opinion is ever understood or formulated in isolation, there is always a bias, a perspective or slant whether we wish to believe this or not.
Is it not more important for every individual to be aware of this, to see the truth even if that truth appears more helpful, satisfying and comforting than the opposing view, to understand the bigger picture, to question everything?
We can find the courage and commitment to think for ourselves, to make our own decisions and choices and more importantly to decide independently what is right for us, what we are capable of and more importantly who and what will define is!
We are all more than capable, so the question is; are we so focused on illness that we are forgetting to live our lives? Are we so focused on stigma that we are stigmatising ourselves?