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Depression is not a proper noun.
As a social work and psychology student, I frequently encounter the concept of “person-first terminology.” We are people, and mental illness does not define us. We are not depression, we have depression.
Using mental illness as a proper noun is at the root of stigma.
In my work and interactions with other people struggling with mental illness, I have always been an advocate of fighting stigma. I am careful not to use mental illness as a proper noun and have always believed people are so much more than their illness.
I believe knowing someone’s diagnosis tells you little about their identity or potential.
When I faced my own battle with depression, I did not extend the same truthful perspective to myself. I became depression; my identity became mentally ill.
I viewed my potential as fatigue, irritability, sadness, hopelessness, trouble concentrating, insomnia, and anhedonia. In the midst of my struggle, I forgot who I was. I forgot my dreams, passions, strengths, and purpose. When I let depression completely define me in my own mind, I lost the will to live. If all I was, all I could accomplish, all I could give, and all I was destined for, was a devastating illness, there was no reason to keep on experiencing the pain.
In that way, self-stigma almost killed me. But it didn’t, because there were people in my life who chose to fight stigma.
There were people in my life who never let me “be” depression. There were people who never lost sight of the woman buried beneath layers of mental illness.
There were people who never stopped reminding me of the plan God had for my life and encouraged me to form an identity outside of my illness. People who let me serve and love them and told me what I had always told other people: I am not my illness.
If you are struggling with mental illness–or love someone who is–fighting self-stigma can be one of the most crucial aspects of recovery. There are a couple steps you can take to begin the journey today.
First, discover your true identity.
I am a writer, a spiritual being, an encourager, a poet, an athlete, a baker, a tea connoisseur, a learner, a volunteer, a mentor, and so much more. For me, part of resisting self-stigma is embracing who I truly am by committing my resources, time, and energy, to the things I am passionate about.
Who are you? Are there habits you can adapt, classes you can take, or groups you can join to help you discover and embrace your true identity?
Once you have discovered your true identity, don’t fall back on your illness to define you. It can be good to be open about your struggle with mental illness, but don’t let it become the first or only thing people know about you.
Let people see all you are, not just your diagnosis.
Then, develop strategies to embrace your full potential.
I used to become discouraged, believing my struggle with depression was going to minimize my potential. I was frustrated because even with proper treatment for my depression, I had to be extremely careful to conserve my limited physical and emotional energy.
I wanted to pour myself into so many areas, including school, church, work, volunteer positions, and relationships, but pouring myself into even one of them left me completely depleted. I was convinced I could never reach my potential living with this handicap.
Through work with an excellent therapist and a few insightful blogs, I learned the art of “working with how I work.”
Using the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy, I worked to accept the fact I will always have to be mindful of my need for a relatively large amount of rest and refreshment. Then, instead of trying to change this aspect of who I am, I chose to design my life in a way to respect this aspect while making the most of my strengths.
Instead of trying to pour myself into many areas, I learned to weed out areas of my life that deplete me or are not my top priorities.
For example, large groups of people sap my energy quickly, so I began to move away from the activities that routinely deplete my energy in this way. I also began to move away from valuable volunteer opportunities because they were not my top priorities.
Then, I learned ways to pour myself into the areas I chose to foster in my life without depleting myself. To do so, I had to accept less is more.
I could theoretically study every hour of every day, or spend all my free time nourishing my relationship with my best friends, or working, or volunteering, but to do so would be a disservice to both me and those around me.
It is more important to be fully present in the areas of my life that matter most to me than it is to be always present.
I also had to learn to listen to my body. My body knows when it needs sleep or rest when it needs socialization or time alone, and when it needs food. When I began to set up my schedule around my needs, I began to see my strengths flourish.
For example, I experience a daily dip in mood and energy in the middle of the afternoon and later in the evening. Instead of trying to maximize how much I get done in the day by cramming every minute, I try to do the things requiring the most physical and emotional energy in the mornings. I try to do the things I find refreshing most during the times when I am more depleted.
What about you? What is truly your identity? What can you do to embrace your strengths and potential?
I encourage you to work with a mentor or therapist to begin to set up your life in a way to respect who you truly are, without letting your mental illness define you!
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