Illustration © Sergi Balfegó
Identity is a combination of multiple references: amongst other factors, it includes a sense of belonging to several groups, and our likings and abilities. For instance, I’m a short girl from Madrid; I’m a dreamer and I’m cheerful; I like cats, reading, writing, social media, the virtual world, and languages; I have green eyes; I’d like to visit Venice; I suffer from asthma… and from a mental disorder.
Mental disorders are just a part of us; they represent a little piece of us, but they don’t describe who we are. We are more than just a disorder, which is a mere label that may help orientate specialists, relatives or even ourselves… However, revolving our life around it is a mistake.
Despite being aware of this, and maybe due to self-stigma, many times we tend to simplify our identity to our disorder. We forget about our inner value and mainly focus on our illness. In my case, I usually focus on my limitations, my “I can’t”s, and end up building up more barriers that prevent me from finding things I like or want to do. All in all, I make my life harder than it actually is.
Usually talking about a mental disorder implies negative connotations. A mental disorder is suffered. For this reason, I like the surtitle on ActivaMent’s website: “Active Group of People with Mental Health Disorder Experience”. I like every word in it, from “group” (though society would like us isolated, we get together and get organized so issues can be dealt with easier rather than alone and uncommunicated), to “active” (we don’t have a passive attitude; instead we choose to be active and step in), and “with Mental Health Disorder Experience” (we are not just ill people, that is not what defines us; we have gone through multiple experiences, have been given a mental health diagnosis, and joined other people in the same situation). We are united by this necessity to be acknowledged like “people” (the last word on the Spanish version of the website ActivaMent). We are complete, different individuals, beyond a diagnosis on a medical report. We are more than a label on a Psychiatry manual.
As I am writing this essay, I realize I struggle to feel like this all the time. Many times, when I meet someone for the first time, I fear the moment when I have to confess that I have been diagnosed with a mental health disability. Often, when volunteering in local activities, I feel distressed when I am asked “Why don’t you have a job?”. I fear having to admit that I am on a temporary leave because of my crisis, because I’m going through a bad path, or because I’m still recovering from my last admission to hospital. It feels as if it is essential that whoever meets me for the first time needs to know about my mental disorder, my diagnosis, that label that seems to mark me out.
But that’s not right because, despite receiving an incapacity pension, I have decided to engage in a volunteer activity some hours a week. In this sense, what really matters is my commitment, my responsibility towards my tasks, my eagerness to participate within the community, instead of people’s prejudices about the so-called social difficulties of people with mental health disorders, never mind people’s prejudices about the potential, hypothetic troubles that people with mental disorders originate wherever we go.
For all this, I have to remind myself that I am more than a disorder, that my life should not be limited to four walls because of my mental disorder. I can and must do things, like participating within my community, my neighborhood, my city. I can and must raise my voice against injustices, I can and must join other people with similar issues to fight for ourselves, like we do at ActivaMent. I cannot get stuck in the “I can’t, I’m sick” attitude, because it can easily become a trap that limits our activities to our comfort zone where no challenge must be faced. Indeed –I am aware of it-, challenges make my life worthy.
I just hope that one day I finally take all this in, and no longer fear people finding out about my psychiatric problems. I also hope these disorders are eventually not associated to the great stigma that they seem to represent today. And I hope that one day I will also interiorize the idea that, when someone meets me for the first time, my disorder does not eliminate everything else in me. In fact, it simply represents a part of my identity, amongst many other aspects that define me, how and who I am.