Don’t Call Me Crazy: Self-Identification & Resisting Toxic Self-Shaming

"When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak."—Audre Lorde; activist and writer

How do we best approach the all too common situation where people make derogatory comments about the chronic illnesses we are battling; are obviously dubious about its severity or even reality as a legitimate, chemically based medical condition; or tell us, sometimes directly hostile and other times under the veil of “helpfulness” that we should “just get over it,” or something of such an ignorant nature. As if anyone suffering from a behavioral health illness (and more often than not, several co-morbid conditions] would choose to grapple with these beyond painful, continual internal (and external) wars on the daily; take medication(s) that commonly have deeply baneful side effects or simply do not work, forcing us to go through withdrawal, time and again, hoping the next one will better abate our symptoms; and sometimes feeling so critically endangered we wind up in dire need for expensive, though essential and often worthwhile, hospitalization(s).

But we should always be shocked. We should be appalled. And I don’t write this to suggest we should be angry and dismissive, or shout at the person who just does not understand the myriad and complex truths of the many complex classes of behavioral health maladies. While it would often be an understandable reaction—especially after dealing with the same questions and stigmatization time and again—such an approach is starkly ineffective. Rather, we must never become accustomed to the pervasiveness of hurtful comments, particularly those that lack any class of critical analysis or willingness for gentle understanding. True allies will listen to us; believe our words about what we have gone through, and continue to fight. It is markedly important to stress the fact that people—people like me and perhaps you—who suffer from chronic behavioral illnesses have the absolute right to self identify. We cannot allow others tell us who we are, for we know who we are. We know what it’s like to be well, and we know what it’s like to be very, very sick. And if we become apathetic, we risk allowing others to name us what they wish, which runs the gamut from family to politicians. Though it is unfortunate, always, when the opposed is tasked with educating the oppressor (even if they are well-intentioned), we are primary sources, and our stories matter.

I find coupling my own experiences, resisting toxic self-shaming and -blaming, with clinical research is a helpful way of laying down a truth that might actually make a difference; be easier to trust. It is frustrating that our own words are sometimes not enough (though many people do understand, or want to, and thank goodness for them!), but I believe it is possible to have really hard but ultimately fruitful conversations with those who truly love us. With those, perhaps, that have had a challenging time listening to us when they are scared, having seen us near or ever at the sometimes seeming infinite bottom of this thing. When the same person—one I love and respect—continually makes inaccurate and accidentally hurtful remarks, I often write a letter, which is non-judgmental and based in the desire for mutual understanding. I am sometimes better on paper, as I can have enormous problems with flight of ideas/racing thoughts when I am sick.

It’s a real mess at times, but I’m working through it, as we all are. Always learning—about ourselves, each other, and the world writ large.

It’s important to ask ourselves what methods of communication work best for the people in our lives who we desire to converse with about the truth of our illnesses. I ask myself this constantly, and of course I take a different approach depending on whom I am speaking with.

And for those who don’t respect or care about us, in sickness and in health: They are not worth our salt.

I’m out of every closet. And no one will force me back in.

The same, I hope, goes for you.

Fellow survivors, keep your head up, and don’t forget your tremendous strength. Ever.