Mental Illness: Writing Our Own Scripts
Earlier this week, I attended the annual general meeting at the Canadian Mental Health Association (Vancouver – Burnaby branch). As always, people who have used the CMHA’s services over the years stood up and told their stories. What remained most with me was one person mentioning that at a certain age, he “experienced symptoms associated with paranoid schizophrenia.” How different that sounded from saying “I am a paranoid schizophrenic.”
The space between who that person was and those symptoms was palpable, airy, freeing. He did not identify with his mental illness. It sounded like one among many things in his life — perhaps one that at times becomes pretty big and in need of a lot of attention but by far not the defining characteristic of who he is.
Listening to the other speakers, I heard the same theme. They were stories of success and vitality, about how they’re volunteering, working, spending time with other people. Not one of them belabored their mental illness, and every one of them had an almost casual way of referring to it, as something definitely worth mentioning but nothing extraordinarily important.
One person, who is now part of a very successful team that teaches government agencies and the public about “mental health first aid” briefly touched on a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder “associated with experiencing severe trauma in childhood.” The message I heard was not that there was some horrible illness but that a condition like that could easily be expected after this trauma, just like a broken bone could easily be expected after falling from a tree.
Another person referred to her illness simply in terms of “hospitalizations.” Even though it looked like these moments had severely disrupted her life, I was again left with the impression that this was not what her life was all about. It’s so much bigger than that.
We all have varying degrees of abilities and health. What counts is what we make of it. And what we make of it depends so much on what story we tell ourselves and others about our experiences. We can concentrate on talking about what doesn’t work — or on what does and will work; we can use labels for ourselves and others — or we can find our very own words to describe what’s going on.
We can write our own scripts.
And I sure liked those scripts yesterday.