Unlearning Mental Illness
Updated: Feb 1
Who will I be when I leave all of my diagnoses behind? What will fill the space in my mind that was once occupied by a skewed identity that screamed mental illness? Is it possible; can I forge on and leave the mental health system behind?
One diagnosis, two, three, but wait, now four, I was beginning to look like a hardened criminal with a rap sheet as I navigated my way down the yellow brick road of mental health.
But what did I gain? What did I derive by investing sixteen years of my life in the mental health system? I got a label and a number that came straight from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSM, which classified me as mentally ill. It kind of reminded me of the system used to classify victims the Holocaust. They received a tattoo, I received a permanent mental health record.
A system that followed me around and crept up in the most unsuspecting places, like my gynecologist's office, "Yes Monica, we know you have panic disorder, it's in your chart". But even more so, being barraged by the mental health system subconsciously in my own brain, day in and day out. A system that stigmatized and marginalized me. One that led me to believe I was defective, with a chemical imbalance in my brain, only to find out there is no such evidence to support that claim.
How tormented I had been over the decades of my life, chronicling back to the age of five when my mother told me, "You are mentally ill Monica, you are delusional". A word that jumped straight out of the DSM, the Holy grail for diagnosing mental illness. Ironically, the same word that ushered me into the mental health system that I thought was going to help me was actually creating documentation confirming my greatest fear, that I was mentally ill.
Unlike so many other victims who are stuck in the mental health system, I managed to escape. But I assure you, unlearning the mental health system hasn't been easy. I had to strip down and take it all off one layer at a time. The four diagnoses that I had been carrying on my back for decades; the psychobabble language that seemed to take precedence over the English language in my brain because that's all I talked about 24 hours a day. My scripts for anti-anxiety medications that I saved over the years are now souvenirs covered with dust. Saying goodbye to the mental health professional that I depended on week after week for sixteen years. And above all, letting go of a pseudo mental health identity that once defined me.
It's a different life for me now, one that requires redirecting my thoughts away from my diagnoses and replacing it with "you’re okay Monica, you’re not crazy". In addition to normalizing my symptoms and saying "it's okay to have anxiety, it's part of the human condition". Embracing the notion I could let go of the mental health system and unlearn mental illness because it wasn't grounded in any real science to begin with. I was finally free to create a new identity for myself and transcend mental illness.
Letting go of mental illness can be experienced in other ways too. I decided to find a new family doctor and make a fresh start. On my first visit I was given a questionnaire about my prior medical history to fill out prior to meeting with the doctor. I zipped through most of the questions until I came to the question, "Do you have a mental illness? Please check the box". I stopped momentarily. In the past I would have checked it off immediately, never giving it a second thought. However, this time I thought it doesn't apply and moved onto the next question.
Unlearning mental illness is something that doesn't happen overnight, but over time. I am fine with it though because I've realized it's far better to unlearn mental illness than to be stuck in the mental health system and never get out!