I don’t think mental illness should ever be your whole identity, but I have to acknowledge that it’s part of my identity. My experiences have contributed to who I am — and many of those experiences were affected or created by my mental health problems. But how much of my identity is determined by my mental health?
And, more to the point, how comfortable am I with the extent to which my identity is determined by my mental health?
The weirdest thing about these considerations is that, against common assumptions, my mental health problems have had some extremely positive effects:
• Hitting rock bottom has made me determined to follow my dreams, especially my goal of earning a living through writing.
• I have more empathy — which means I want to help break down the stigma surrounding mental illness to help others.
• Confronting my mental health problems forced me to build my self-esteem, which means I no longer let anyone treat me like shit.
• I value integrity, creativity and emotional honesty over the things a lot of other people seem to value, like money and status.
• The stagnancy of mental illness persuaded me to embrace change, which has led to me getting my degrees and travelling to places I never thought I’d see.
But, like physical illnesses, mental illnesses leave scars.
I think I will always have the insecurites which are enmeshed in my mental health problems. My anxieties resurface when I least expect them. I know how bad things can get: I know the despair of believing life is not worth living. These are aspects of mental illness that I would not wish on anyone.
So how can I accept these negative aspects of mental illness as part of my identity?
The short answer is because I have no choice. In order to embrace what I have learnt from my mental health problems, I must embrace the negative effects as well as the positive. The difference is, I try to give far more attention to the positive effects.
That is true of everything in life. Every relationship in your life has negative and positive aspects. Every experience you have, ditto. You don’t choose to become mentally ill, but you can choose to learn from your experience of mental illness (once you have recovered enough) and to cultivate the silver linings.
Ultimately, it is impossible to say how much of your identity is determined by your mental health.
It cannot be measured. Your mental health — whether you have always been mentally healthy or if you have had mental health problems — colours all of the other aspects of your identity. The idea of that would have terrified me a decade ago, but I have learnt that I can use my experiences to my advantage. I can use my knowledge of The Dark Side to drive myelf towards a better future. I can enjoy the authentic friendships in my life and minimise contact with the people who treated me badly when I was at my most vulnerable.
You don’t relinquish power by accepting how your mental health has impacted your identity: you gain power.
You move past the shame and anguish which other people project onto you and realise that mental illness is not a personality flaw or a punishment you have brought upon yourself. It is just an illness. It is bound to affect all aspects of your life, just as a serious, long-term physical condition is bound to impact your life.
Am I a different person because I have mental health problems? Yes and no. Mental illness has made me learn more about myself. It has brought different aspects of my personality to the fore. It has encouraged me to explore who I am.
I used to be preoccupied with pleasing other people. I hid my imagination and my intelligence because some people had a problem with them. I paid attention to criticism and ignored praise. I lost confidence and didn’t try new things.
I could have soent my whole life like that, working in a job I didn’t like and wasting my time on unimportant things, but experiencing mental illness led to a change of direction. It changed my priorities. It made me discover my own values.
More than anything, my mental health issues have helped me become the person I always was.