Getting a new diagnosis: Thoughts on mental health identity

Image: a list of illnesses with empty check boxes beside each name. Depression has a red check mark next to it.

In a past Motherhood & Madness post I mentioned that the psychiatrist I’m seeing felt that my borderline diagnosis was wrong and that I instead experience major depression, generalized anxiety and “severe, reactive interpersonal sensitives”. As I said in the previous post, “I feel like [the psychiatrist] just broke down my experience into small chunks, making them seem separate when they are really deeply connected.” Overall I have ignored the apparent change in diagnosis and I also have to admit that it did get to me when I found myself in a group of BPD peers. I may see myself as not sick, identify as Mad and as someone who doesn’t put weight into DSM labels but it would be careless of me to ignore that I am still vulnerable to these labels and what they mean.

I remember when I was first diagnosed with dysthymia (chronic depression) when I was 16 years old I felt relieved and validated. For many years my sadness had been seen as a personal flaw and for the first time I could tell people that being this sad all the time wasn’t something I was doing on purpose (of course, discrimination made none of that matter but I still had something to fall back on rather than nothing). When I was around 23 years old and told that I no longer had dysthymia, and instead had borderline personality traits I again felt validated. I felt like someone understood my experiences and that I would finally be able to get the help I really needed (let’s just ignore the fact that BPD treatment is limited, expensive and not taken seriously). Now, at 27, with 2 (or 3…does the sensitivities count as a diagnosis?) different diagnoses added to my file I find myself scratching my head and thinking, “That’s not me.”

Image: a creature coming out of a circle. The creature’s body says “I am?” The circle has words on it such as personality, heritage, behaviour, abilities, feelings and narrative.

Each of our identities can bring with it a sense of community. My identity as a White woman with BPD opens up opportunities for me to connect with others through shared experiences, discuss the issues related to our identities (especially around White privilege) and offer sources of pride. So when one of those identities is challenged it shakes you to your core and can have damaging effects (here I especially think about trans people who are morally and legally denied to be the sex they know they were born to be). I think that many mental health professionals still do not understand that for some people, they are not handing out the name of an illness, they are handing out identities. These diagnoses can offer us an understanding in our experiences and guide us into how we can fit into the world. I have no problem connecting with others who have a different label than I as I know majority of us have similar shared experiences. There is something special though about being with others who share your label. It is very empowering, healing and fun.

I experience the extreme sadness we call depression but I do not identify with it. I do not think I could sit in a major depression support group and feel 100% comfortable. The same goes for the generalized anxiety label. I do not think I would fit well there. This has nothing to do with individuals who are have these labels and experiences. I would feel just as out of place in a group of people with another identity that I did not connect with. My sadness and anxiety is extremely situational and I believe BPD acknowledged that.

At the end of the day, I know I get to choose who I am. Just because someone gives me a label does not mean I have to accept it. I write the story of my life and I will continue to see myself as a sensitive person who is doing fairly well in life. I get to decide.



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