Mental Illness: Writing Our Own Scripts

Anti_Stigmatization2.jpgEarlier 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.

  • I love that – “I’ve experienced symptoms of…” An awesome way to stay out of the denial, but not, as you said, define yourself by your illness.

    Thank you for the uplifting article.

  • thanks, lyman, and i think it goes even further. by saing “experienced symptoms associated with …” he also leaves open the whole question of usefulness of diagnoses. this is particularly significant with schizophrenia which, some say, is not nearly as homogeneous an illness as it is often portrayed; it may be better seen as a cluster of symptoms.

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  • Marti

    This post really spoke to me. I think we can all use the “experienced symptoms associated with…” model for all kinds of off days, mood swings, hormonal challenges, in our daily lives. Prevents those off days, etc. from defining us.

    Marti in Mexico

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  • broke

    This is really fascinating – thank you for writing about it. When mental illness is at its worst it does consume most of what I am, however you are right that there is so much to me/us than that. I find what you say helpful, yet I have always known it. Strange.
    I’ve just found your site and it looks very interesting – I’ll be back.
    Take care,

  • Maree WRAGG

    I have a brain injury that has physically, not psychologically, disabled me. Other people can SEE that I am disabled, their attitude to me in response to the fact that I cannot use my right hand with any sort of strength or dexterity DOES define me, as it is not possible to change their attitude to me, no matter what I do. The only thing that might change it is a complete cure, which is so unlikely, and even if that happened, I imagine they would still retain their current attitude to me since that is how they have learned to identify and interact with me. How I think of myself (as a victim or not) is NOT going to change the opinion of society, since my being upbeat about my disabilities merely labels me as simple or retarded, and not mature enough to see the real picture. The attitude of society, as a whole, needs to be either changed, or controlled to allow people like me a chance to really LIVE.

  • lloyd

    I would be interested in any coping skills and/or motivating methods anyone will share to help me be the best I can with my 34 yr. old Schizophenic Son.

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.

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