By Cindy Tillory
When you are young, society seems to hand out labels like candy on Halloween. Growing up, I was labeled “the Black kid,” “the weirdo,” “the nerd,” “the fat kid.” The world around me seemed to dole out these categories without a second thought, and I let them define me throughout my childhood.
Unfortunately, the labels didn’t stop once I entered adulthood. Rather, they became centered around my worsening mental health. With each new diagnosis, which in turn, became a label, understanding and accepting myself became even more challenging.
In the spring of 2012, a year after I lost my mother, I was in crisis. Between my sobs and fits of rage, I felt like nothing mattered. I was not in school; I was unable to find work and my mood was constantly swinging from over-productive to fatigued and depressed.
My friends had gone off to college, and I was alone and struggling. My already-challenging circumstances, combined with this lack of social support, resulted in homelessness. Soon after, at 22 years old, I was hospitalized.
I received a diagnosis during this hospitalization, which felt like being slapped with yet another label: bipolar. My mother had bipolar disorder, and despite a few incidents, she seemed essentially “normal,” so I was at least familiar with my new label. With medication and therapy, I figured, I would manage the situation.
Two years later, my label changed when I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. My immediate reaction was fear. I was afraid that all my efforts in getting better — the meds I had taken, the therapy I was attending, the efforts I had made to learn about my first label — were all irrelevant. Not only had my efforts been misdirected, but I also had to make sense of a new, more foreign label. I saw myself as a failure, a freak, another “crazy” person who belonged in the hospital.
I was frightened to tell people the truth about my diagnosis, fearing what meaning they might ascribe to my new label. This fear came true when I eventually told someone that I had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and they seemed to be afraid of me. After this encounter, I found that I was afraid of myself, too.
I became obsessed with the “schizoaffective” label and began to isolate myself even further from the small pool of people who cared about me. Unsurprisingly, this isolation only made my mental health worse.
As I obsessed over my diagnosis and how others would perceive me, I began to spiral into a pattern of negative thinking.
“What if I go off the deep end?” I wondered one night.
What if I became just another failed statistic? I was still taking my meds and still seeing a therapist, but what if it was all for nothing? The thought tore through my chest like an icicle to the heart. What if it never went away? What if it never became manageable? What if I never got back to “normal”?
At the time, being “normal” was the ultimate goal. I wasn’t normal; my thoughts, actions, what I heard and felt weren’t like what anyone else experienced. If I could get back to being like everyone else with medication and therapy, I thought, I could be happy. “Normal” became a mythical sense of self; in this reality, I could be more than a failure — more than my diagnosis allowed, more than what people feared about me.
As I committed to my therapy and fought to find the right combinations of medications, I began to accept my own version of “normal.” Over time, I was able to let go of some of my fears and the labels that once reduced me to a diagnosis.
In therapy, we broke down my fears born from labeling and stigma; we acknowledged them, contextualized them and finally put them to rest. With a lot of social support from my peer-support programs, I got better friends, ones who could help me understand myself better and who didn’t judge.
I wasn’t “fixed,” but I worried less about how I would be perceived as a person with mental illness. I even went back to school; I began my life again, this time with fresh, non-judgmental eyes.
Recently, I had a thought. A thought that didn’t arise during panicked thinking in the middle of the night: The labels don’t matter — what matters is context. Who we are beyond our appearances, diagnoses and circumstances is far more important than the labels themselves. The choices I made and the way I live my life is far more revealing than any diagnosis.
Now I choose to live my life with just one label: Cindy.
Cindy Tillory studies sociology at Palomar College, and she plans to graduate in Spring 2022. She has a blog called “Late Start” and is active in her community.
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