What’s in a label?

We start to collect labels when we are born.  ‘Girl’, ‘Pakeha‘ (that means white New Zealander’), ‘sister’ ‘daughter’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘divorced’,  etc.  As life goes on more and more accumulate but when you dive into the world of mental illness, suddenly if you’re not careful, you become what you are labelled.  You are that label.

My first mental illness label came nearly 20 years ago. ‘Major Depressive Disorder‘.  More followed over the years including, ‘Eating Disorder‘, ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder‘ (PTSD), followed by one I never really got at the time.  It was ‘Personality Disorder – mixed’.  All I learnt from that was they really didn’t know what label to give me.  My eating disorder eventually changed from ‘Anorexia‘ to ‘Eating Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified‘.  Again they didn’t know how to label me but more so, I started to realise that perhaps I was also in the ‘too hard basket’.  There was talk of ‘Anxiety Disorders‘ and ‘Dissociative Disorder‘.   I was frequently ‘suicidal’ and soon became a ‘self harmer’.  Relatively recently the label ‘Borderline Personality Disorder was added to my collection.  I think the space on the form the psychiatrist is completing on me, is well and truly full.  But…  to have a complete picture of me it’s important to add a few more general medical labels, including ‘Graves’ Disease‘, ‘suspected Fibromyalgia’, ‘Thalassemia’ and actually the one that started all this off was ‘Glandular Fever‘.  Phew!  I like to keep my doctors busy.

These labels are all very well for the health professionals who like to fit me into a box.  They can say “This is who we think Cate is and this is how we expect her to behave”.  And that’s the problem.  I don’t necessarily behave like I’m ‘meant’ to.  What’s more, they are not always right.  For years I was labeled with ‘depression’ but I didn’t respond how I was meant to.  Actually I got told by doctors that I was in the ‘too hard basket’.  One psychiatrist even told me that I wrecked his career because I didn’t respond adequately to the Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT)’ he ordered.  His career must have been on shaky grounds and I sure didn’t appreciate being blamed.  I was terribly depressed for years, but it wasn’t the only thing going on for me, so of course I didn’t respond how I was ‘meant’ to.

One of the difficulties that you might have guessed having read my list, is that having multi diagnoses, I was unlikely to respond by the textbook.  This applies in both the psych world as well as the general medicine.  It seems to me that most doctors can deal with one thing wrong, but they don’t want to look at the whole picture.  Right now I am being assessed for a Fibromyalgia diagnosis but my doctors seem unable, or unwilling to understand everything that is going on in my body.  It makes me ask, what is the point of a label, if it’s not going to be considered with all the other factors in the situation.   I am a person.  I have a way of being, along with beliefs, opinions, education, genetics, experiences and history.  All of these really need to be taken into consideration if I am to be known.  Not just the label.

I’m not at all suggesting that we do away with labels because they have their uses to us mental health consumers.  When a label is applies to me and I am expected to behave a certain way, that is of little use to me.  But when a label is used to describe ways that I might be feeling, thinking and acting?  That is a good feeling.  Maybe someone understands after all.

When I plunged into the depths of mental illness I had little idea of what was going on.  It was all very scary and frightening.  I went from being a confident woman who daily stood in front of a crowd of people to train them in corporate ways, to someone who was too scared to walk to the letterbox to get the mail, too scared to talk to anyone but my boyfriend, too scared to live.  When a label was applied by my doctor I was actually relieved.  He knew what was happening to me, even if I didn’t.  Some labels fit, but others didn’t.  That’s ok because combine what fits with who I am, and you get me.  That was such a relief when I was so scared.

Silhouette of a woman in a cave looking at her...
Image via Wikipedia

So yes, there is a place for labels.  They do go some way to explain what is happening either mentally or physically.  It’s just that they are not the whole picture.  They don’t define me by themselves.  They only help me begin to understand, and provide a picture for health professionals of what might be going on for me – but only when considered with all the other aspects of me.


9 thoughts on “What’s in a label?

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