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Mental Health

The Pros and Cons of Labels

My experience with labels has both negative and positive. My aim in sharing this post is to help those of you better understand your relationship with labels, your identity, and your sense of self-worth.

Labels are truly paradoxical. They are both beneficial as well as destructive to the person that is being labeled. 

When I was sixteen a full-blown depression swept over me. Like a tornado, it wreaked havoc on my spirit, destroying my ability to think clearly. My personality, sense of self, and energy were somewhere out of reach, buried in the rubble. 

Moving my muscles felt like a herculean effort. I listened to sad songs, took warm bubble baths, and ate peanut-butter chewy granola bars. Over and over…and over again. I would tear off the wrapper and gobble them up by the box. Eating sugary snacks and taking scalding hot baths reminded me that I was alive. They sent a fraction of pleasure to my brain for a few seconds, but soon I would get pulled under again. It felt like sinking in a swampy pile of muck. Eventually, I just wanted to stop fighting to keep my head above water. I wanted to drown. More than anything, I wanted this to be over. Give me mercy….

I spent a lot of time in the bathtub thinking about death. What would happen if I used that razorblade to slit my wrists? Was it possible to drown myself in this bathtub? My mind was a messy array of dark thoughts. I wondered where the smiley skinny girl with no worries in the world had gone. I loathed myself in a way that made my insides ache. I felt all alone in the world. I wondered if anyone understood me. 

When I figured out I was depressed, I felt less alone. I felt relief knowing that there was help out there for me. There are other people who get this! The label was comforting in this way. It didn’t feel like it was my fault that I was depressed. It was out of my control. I can’t help this affliction

Our society understands this neat little label. When people can understand things, they’re more compassionate. I would take all of the compassion I could get at that point.

The world can never have too much compassion for those who are suffering. 

Still, from then on, I would always wonder if depression was part of my identity. The answer to that is no. Being in a temporary state of depression is not part of your identity the way the flu isn’t part of your identity. You get help and move forward.  It may be part of your timeline, but do not make the mistake of enmeshing depression with your cardinal personality traits.

Your mental health issues are not who you are. 

Does this mean I have a dark resolution for life? I guess I’m a naturally melancholic person. 

No. 

I do not claim this to be true, though for a while I believed it to be. 

I had an adverse reaction to a heightened dose of an anti-depressant- a full-blown panic attack (more on that in a later post.) I started feeling and acting weird and unlike myself, so my therapist said this meant I had bi-polar disorder. 

This informal diagnosis did not help me at all. While the antidepressant may have lifted my mood and kept me focused, the mood stabilizer and antipsychotic that I took for the next five years were probably not necessary. The antipsychotic made me feel drugged and mindless. Thinking about it now brings a tear to my eye. I can still feel the injustice. My brain is still trying to recover. 

I wish my therapist told me that this was not permanent, rather than saying “you’re going to have to be on medication for the rest of your life.” 

I felt less at-fault and less guilty with the mental illness labels. Yet, I mistook these labels as part of my identity.

Another time, a label offered me community and relief.

I was so relieved that I became giddy. Someone out there gets it! I am desperate for recognition. I scour the world for recognition. I search for it in people’s expression, catching that glint of “I know what you mean.” There lips turn upward, their eyes glimmer a bit, and they nod in understanding. “You’re not alone.”

I have something called Directional Dyslexia. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s okay. The world doesn’t recognize this condition yet. It’s an inability to form cognitive spacial maps. In other words, it takes me a really, really long time to get around anywhere. I had to drive to the mall and movie theatre in my home town twenty times before I was able to get there without a map. I was unable to reverse the direction in my head, so then I had to memorize the reverse route a million times. I got my license a year before the GPS came out, so my Mom had to draw pictures every time I left the house. Thanks Mom!

I have gotten lost in my own neighborhood many times. If I turned right at the second stop sign instead of the third, I wouldn’t have the slightest inkling where I was. I would have to call my mom to come help out. I knew that I was different than others, when I got lost in my neighborhood when I was twelve. My friend lived around the corner. Instead of turning left, I turned right. I didn’t have a cellphone back then, so I was going to have to figure this one out on my own. I wandered around for a few hours before I finally walked by the police station and found my panicked mother. 

When I was a teenager, I searched the internet for my symptoms. It was after a really embarrassing incident where I got lost from my friends after going to the bathroom. I pretended that I was looking around for cell service, but everyone knew that I was lost. My sister and friends laughed at me. A shameful pang stabbed me in the chest as I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. 

I went to the internet and found out that other people had this issue as well. I joined a chatroom and felt comforted by other people’s stories. At that point, I had a GPS. Some of these people grew up before technological advancements and had to draw pictures to get ANYWHERE for their entire adult lives. Apparently, it’s genetic! My grandmother has it as well. Both of us always turn the wrong way when we step out of our hotel room. Our family has to call to us from the opposite side of the hall. 

Before Dyslexia was recognized, people just thought that these kids were stupid. They thought they were unteachable. No, actually neurons aren’t firing in a certain part of their brain. You can see this difference on a cat scan. They’re just as smart as you or me, but they need to learn to read in a different way. The traditional way simply won’t work for them. Now, because dyslexia is in the DSM, people recognize dyslexia and understand that these people are intelligent. 

I’m sure there are countless issues that are not recognized by the DSM. That does not mean that they are not real. Just because YOU don’t get it, doesn’t mean it’s not a thing. Just because professionals in a lab haven’t figured in out yet, doesn’t make it fake. 

It’s unfortunate that society has to have a palatable answer for everything. Maybe labels wouldn’t need to exist if people just understood that all people’s brains work a little differently. If someone goes against the grain a little bit, society needs to find a way to neatly describe this irregularity. This way they can put all of the misfit puzzle pieces off to the side. 

I’m so thankful to have a smartphone with a navigational system! I can disguise my issues pretty well, but I still get made fun of. And because society doesn’t yet understand directional dyslexia, people just say, “Oh you’re just bad with directions.” Yeah, no kidding! I still don’t know how to get to downtown Cincinnati from the suburbs where I grew up, even though I resided there for my entire childhood. If you don’t want to believe me, fine. People may think I’m just dumb, but I know that I’m not. I’m grateful that I’ve read other people’s accounts of this problem. 

So, in this instance my directional dyslexia label helped me. It gives me peace of mind. I felt like less of a freak when I realized that I wasn’t alone. I have only met two other people with this issue, but I believe that it will be recognized in my lifetime. Maybe the reason this label was so beneficial for me was because I gave it to myself.

This label helped me to make sense of the way my brain works.

Another time when I felt confined by a label was when I began dating women. Nothing physical ever happened, but I wanted to experiment with my sexuality. I felt emotionally and physically attracted to women, so I figured that I owed it to myself to go on some dates. People asked me, “So are you gay? Are you bi?” 

No. I’m just me. I felt confined by these labels. Can’t I just follow my curiosity without having to box myself in? When it comes to sexuality, we’re all a little bit different and the same. It’s so personal and unique to you, yet it’s universal. When you have chemistry with someone, you know it by the sensations in your body and your beating heart. That looks different for everyone. 

I literally don’t know how to describe my sexuality. If I’m attracted to one out of thirty women, should I say I’m bi? What if I don’t want a relationship with a woman? I don’t think about my sexuality anymore because I’m in a loving and committed relationship with my boyfriend. 

You can label me as the girl with the wild imagination, talented hula-hooper, college graduate, blonde white chick, introverted writer, crazy festival goer, grad-school dropout, older sister, daughter, girl who moves every single year, fake bisexual chick, or the girl with the dead dad. Call me anxious, call me depressed, call me crazy, call me manic, call me CRAZY, I don’t care. 

One thing is for sure- worthiness is my label. 

I’m worthy when I’m so depressed I can’t move, when I’m thick or thin, when I’m in school or not in school, when I’m wearing make-up or rocking the bare-face, when I’m productive or watching Netflix, when I’m working or unemployed, when I’m sick or healthy, when I’m creative or foggy, when I’m anxious or not, when I’m stuck in a rut or living up to my fullest potential. 

I’m worthy no matter what. 

And so are you all of you. 

For me, labels have been a blessing and a curse. What’s your experience? Tell me in the comments below. 

Sending love and strength,

Annie 

By annefoley1

Reading other accounts of human resilience has helped me immensely. Now, it's my turn to give back. I want to heal others with my words and remind everyone that they are beautiful and worthy.

2 replies on “The Pros and Cons of Labels”

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