3 years ago, while undertaking a Masters degree, I became ill and had to drop out of the university course. I was diagnosed with a moderate depressive episode, started taking medication and having talking therapy. I ended up having 3 months of sick leave, and could probably have done with a bit more than that, but I didn’t want to miss my final year of medical school, so I gritted my teeth and managed to get that last year done while I was still quite ill.
Because my illness made it difficult to get out of the house some days, I didn’t have 100% attendance, and although my attendance wasn’t particularly different to the other fifth years, the fact that mine was due to illness meant that the University had to check whether I was well enough to work, before they’d let me have my degree.
This is one example of how, once you’ve been labelled as mentally ill, everything you do is associated by some people with your illness. This is not a new phenomenon. The “Rosenhan Experiment” in the 1970s sent “pseudopatients” in to psychiatic hospitals, presenting with fake symptoms, but behaving as their normal selves as soon as they’d been admitted. Their normal behaviours (such as keeping a diary) were labelled as pathological (obsessive note-keeping) and once they were discharged, most were given a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission” – i.e. once you have received a label of mental illness, you have it forever.
Over a number of years now, with some help from therapists, I have been trying to stop doing things which were previously making me unhappy. I am now open with people about my gender, sexuality and non-monogamous lifestyle – being closeted, especially with people who are important to me, like family members, was very uncomfortable. I also started dyeing my hair again, got more piercings and started getting tattoos – these were things that I had stopped myself from doing because I felt that other people would disapprove. Being able to be myself more authentically is much more comfortable than trying to “live up” to what I imagine other people’s standards are, even if it does cause conflict sometimes.
Unfortunately, I have discovered, some people do not see these changes in the same light as me. Some see me receiving a mental health diagnosis and then starting doing all kinds of “crazy” things. And some people have labelled those things that I have been doing to make my life easier and happier, as being somehow pathological. I don’t know if they hope that my personality will “go away” once my depression is better, or that I’ll return to being the less challenging, less expressive, more “normal” and ultimately less me version of myself that I used to be. And I don’t know how to reach out to those people, how to reassure them – if they think I’m “not myself” then will they listen to what I have to say?