Getting diagnosed with a mental illness is a mixed bag. Personally, I had to get mine after being forcibly thrown into my town’s local mental health system. Up until that point, I was in an increasing state of denial about having a problem. Being forced into the process created its own set of issues, but those weren’t relevant to needing help in the first place. Still, my world changed when I had to face my mental illnesses head on. It’s a scary thing that doesn’t have to always be scary.
Getting a diagnosis doesn’t change who you are.
Proverbially speaking, I still had to put my pants on the same way before and after getting diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder. The sun didn’t rise any differently, the magnetic poles hadn’t flipped, and the sky didn’t change colors. More personally, the problems which gave rise to my diagnosis had been around for at least 20 years; it took two decades for me to be forced to admit they were there.
Despite these feelings, I still hadn’t changed. Perception in this case is not reality. Rather, it was an incomplete coping strategy that hadn’t done me any favors. Yes, it felt all kinds of wrong and terrible and awful, but ultimately I was starting to finally deal with my personal flaws instead of ignoring them. It was still hard to fully appreciate this, considering that going through the process is incredibly dehumanizing.
That is, the reassurances I was getting from mental health staff weren’t reassuring. They rattle off these statements like they’re reciting some boring line they don’t believe. Internally, I was freaking out, and to them it was pure tedium. I only had perspective on this because in law school I was told specifically to avoid doing that to clients. The only other time I’d been anywhere near mental health treatment, I lacked that perspective, and it made me run the opposite direction.
Thus, if I could tell anyone just getting into treatment for that first time one important thing, it’s that you still get to be you. A diagnosis doesn’t rob you of anything; it helps you acknowledge more of yourself. What comes after might be tough or easy or good or bad or ugly, but right now you are still you.
A second important thing is to not listen to people who are ignorant about mental health.
It can include friends, family, coworkers, and anyone else you hold dear. There will always be that one ignorant person who gets to tell you what your life is without knowing who the hell you are. Other people might decide to take the more passive route, opining that back in their day, mental health was easy to deal with. Or they might be ignorant because they’re afraid of mental illness and want to push it back into the shadows of the public’s consciousness.
Whatever the reason, these people are going to say some awful things. They get less awful when one recognizes how they come from a place that doesn’t recognize reality. People broadcast their insecurities in terrible ways, and it puts a burden on people with mental illness to be the adults in the exchange. It can be hard to remember this – I know I have problems at times – but it gets better with practice.
Getting diagnosed with a mental illness is the beginning of a new world.
I wish that I’d gotten this kind of help while I was in undergrad when I needed it the most. It’s easy to remember this because it’s a sense of what I lost rather than what I’ve gained. When I’m having unhealthy thoughts, my perspective mirrors this view.
Still, I’d gotten help before I’d accomplished anything permanent. Now I get to learn how to better myself, to prevent me from sabotaging my own goals. The process is long and difficult, and I have no assurances of any kind of happy ending. But now I’m on a road of my own making. Even if I make mistakes, they are mine, and nobody can take them from me. When I succeed, those successes are mine as well, and I decide to be proud of them.