07 Jan 2016

Labels – for jars or people?

Labels are for jars
This post was written by Fiona Kennedy aka @sunnyscattered on twitter and Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers on Facebook in 2015 for Mental Health Ireland.
If you’ve spent any amount of time at all on facebook or twitter you will have come across one or two (thousand at least) inspirational/motivational quotes. I tend to scroll over them at this stage, they’re all variations on a theme, but the odd one will stand out. Here’s one – ‘labels are for jars, not people’. So why did this stand out? Mostly because I don’t agree with the sentiment. Years ago, I did, and I can understand why a lot of people still do. Labels can be handed out all too easily, or even used in conversation as a way of minimising or making fun of peoples’ habits – we’ve all heard of someone who’s ‘sooo OCD’. But labels exist for a reason. They can help.

Physical illness Vs Mental illness

Say you have a sore arm. Really, really sore, you can’t move it, but you don’t bother finding out what might be wrong. You try to carry on as normal, but it’s not working out. What were once simple tasks that you didn’t have to think about suddenly become impossible. Still you ignore it. The pain gets worse and worse, till eventually you’re left with no option but to go see the doctor. Guess what? Your arm is broken, and you’ve done considerably more damage by ignoring the problem. It can be fixed, but it will take time and it may never be the same again because you’ve let it go for too long.

Now apply that same rationale to mental illness, any mental illness. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, borderline personality disorder – any of them, or the multitude of other issues that can affect any one of us. The symptoms flare up. You ignore them. You try to keep going but it’s just not possible. Life becomes almost unendurable, functioning is beyond you. Wouldn’t it just have been easier to know what was going on, what to expect, what treatment might help and how to manage the symptoms?

A diagnosis

I fought, and fought, and fought some more, for years, against having the label of depression attached to me. I tried to persuade my psychiatrist (yes, really) on more than one occasion that it wasn’t a real illness. Eventually, I grudgingly acknowledged that it might, just maybe, be part of what was causing so many difficulties for me. I fought again when borderline personality disorder was diagnosed. It’s a particularly hefty label, notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to believe what I read about it, or the amount of work that was going to be involved in getting to grips with it and managing it on an on-going basis.

The reasons why

But after a while, with the labels came relief, because the labels explained the reasons why I was thinking, behaving and feeling as I was. I won’t go so far as to say it made sense, because there are so many aspects of these two disorders that just don’t make sense to me, not yet. But at the same time, being able to catch and recognise disordered thinking has brought me such a long way in learning to manage symptoms, particularly in relation to BPD. It doesn’t make the experience of the symptoms any easier, but knowing what’s going on, and that it will pass, helps lessen the intensity somewhat.

I don’t like my labels. I didn’t ask for them, and I would certainly rather I didn’t have them. But I do. They don’t define me, and they’re not all I am, not by a long shot. But accepting them, rather than fighting them, has brought me just that bit closer to being able to manage them. So go ahead, label me, it helps. Just don’t judge me.

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