Pride weekend is a pretty big deal in Seattle and while I tend to avoid events like parades (too much standing still with too many people for me to feel comfortable) I found myself on Capitol Hill twice during the celebration. I enjoyed having the opportunity to see all kinds of different people milling around smiling and laughing, and the attitudes of the multitude allowed me the briefest window where my self-consciousness could melt away.
Pride was, in a roundabout way, what led to a conversation where I was asked how important I think it is for us as human beings to be able to categorize ourselves in different ways. Even though I’ve only just started becoming familiar with the particulars of gender when it comes to self identity I couldn’t help but point out that this is a topic of conversation that comes up in regard to mental illness pretty frequently too.
In those instances the question is usually about diagnosing mental illness and if trying to fit our symptoms -which can vary widely even within an illness- into one category or another is more helpful or harmful in the long run. Even though opinions vary greatly on this topic I’ve found that the majority tend to see reaching a diagnosis as something helpful and can appreciate it as a tool to better understand their symptoms and how to live with them. For me being diagnosed with bipolar disorder felt more like a relief than anything else, even despite finding my symptoms don’t line up with the majority of those with the disorder.
In terms of self-identity I’ve always been curious as to how other people live their lives and what we have in common, but for as long as I can remember I have struggled with the idea of who I am. Trying to find commonalities has felt exhausting at times because I’ve had a hard time locking down what my values are, what I want my life to be, and who I am.
Issues of gender and sexuality have definitely played into that. Discovering that I might not be attracted to the same people my friends were was both alienating and isolating. Not being able to really understand why I feel uncomfortable when people address me differently than I imagine myself has been frustrating because being unable to explain this strange off-putting feeling to myself has meant being unable to explain it to anyone else too.
Self identity in that sense has had a huge impact on how I act, how I interact with other people, but also on my mental health. Feeling estranged from people I can relate to has often meant feeling depressed and isolated. Being unable to pinpoint and communicate where a lot of those thoughts and feelings are coming from and, even more, feeling the need to constantly explain myself has fueled a lot of the anger I have toward myself and other people.
While issues with gender and my sexuality have fueled issues like depression and low self-esteem I have found that living with mental illness itself, in my case treatment resistant bipolar disorder and anxiety, has played a huge role in keeping me from being able to pinpoint who I am and what I want out of life. Mood swings make a habit of constantly changing my motives and desires, so getting a grasp on what is underneath has often felt like digging a hole in the sand at the beach that is constantly being refilled by each wave that rolls in.
After six months of DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) I’ve got a new-found appreciation for the fact that having a real understanding of ourselves and what we want in life is how we are able to find ways to make ourselves happy and move toward our goals. What can we expect if we don’t know how to make ourselves happy? Where do we go if we’re not moving toward the lives we want?
Without categorizing our needs in other ways, like the diagnosis of mental illness, how can we expect to move toward improving our symptoms? Without understanding our needs and being able to communicate those needs in a way other people and healthcare providers can understand, how can we address them?
I can understand how categorizing the elements in our lives can seem limiting to some people, but throughout history mass communication has been based on shared common knowledge. That might come from our language, or our understanding of science and theories at the time, or things we’ve learned from our friends and family (among others). Being able to communicate what we need in a way that other people can understand is a huge part of being able to be successful in both feeling acceptance from other people and moving toward what we want, and while sometimes that communication comes at the price of having to simplify things to help people understand, the understanding and acceptance is the ultimate goal.
Granted, there are big differences between something like identifying gender identity or sexual preference, and identifying a mental illness. I think it is important to remind people that our sexual preference and gender identity are inherent to who we are and to express those things comes from a lot of personal reflection and understanding of ourselves.
Conversely, most people in the mental health camp consider mental illness to be just that, an illness. I would be remiss if I didn’t say there aren’t people that disagree, but to most the symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others, are things that are keeping us from being happy and living the lives we want to.
If you consider it though, identifying mental illness is one way we are all able to be true to ourselves and to act in a way that will bring us a better understanding of ourselves and how to move toward living the lives we want. We seek treatment to try to get back to the sense of self we understand and feel that we have lost.
What is the expression and self discovery that comes with coming out, or expressing a change in gender identity but an act in the same direction? Taking steps to understand and communicate our identity is another way in which people can reaffirm their sense of self and actively move toward finding happiness and living the lives they want to live.
In both situations we fight to protect our sense of self and our identities, and though it might initially feel like an act of self-preservation both the LGBTQ and mental health communities know the value of protecting our inner-self and see that being true to ourselves, whatever that means for us, will make us happier in the long run.
I know that I’ve felt the effects of ignoring my most inner sense of self, and that whether that came from hiding who I truly felt I was or denying myself help from the constant attack on it that came with my mental illness I like to think that each day I know myself a little better. I understand myself a little better. I can keep moving in the direction of supporting who I am and what I want because I know that I am the only person who can do that for myself –and I deserve it.