OMGThat'sWhatTheySaid! -- They

"We are more alike than we are different."  That was the first thing they wrote on the whiteboard at my Peer to Peer class.  And that was the first thing I wrote in my new notebook.  I had a sense that a revolution was coming.  But I didn't know yet what it was.

The next week we introduced ourselves by how we are different, our differential diagnoses.  We were Mary Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Frank Bipolar, Sarah Borderline Personality Disorder, Peter Bipolar Antisocial Schizoaffective Disorder ("But I'm not so sure the schizoaffective part is right"), James Schizophrenia, Anna Major Depressive Disorder, Henry Bipolar Alcoholic, Willa Major Depressive Disorder ("But I wonder about Bipolar II").  Of course, I have changed the names.

The power of naming -- the third week we sorted out our seating arrangements.  That wasn't part of the class.  It just happened, when we entered the room and chose our seats.  The OCDs sat with the OCDs.  The Mood Disorders sat with the Mood Disorders. Interestingly enough, those with Schizophrenia did not sit together.  They dispersed themselves among us Mood Disorders.

I have focused for the last three weeks on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  You could call it The Book of Names. The series brought me back to the reshaping of my imagination that began at Peer to Peer. I need to go back there. 

The Book of Names gave us our differential diagnoses, in the language of psychiatrists and therapists and insurance companies, words to speak of difference.

The sixth week we introduced ourselves again, by telling our stories.  That was the first step in the revolution.  Our stories began to reshape our imaginations, as we found the language of narrative.  We discovered how we are alike.

They weren't the most pleasant of words -- the nightmare of high school, child abuse, hospitalizations, prison time, misdiagnoses, meds.  Each story was unique.  But all the way through, I could identify with bits of each.  And in the widest sense, we were all of us survivors, and all there as a commitment to survival, all continuing survival as our essential life's work.  None of us told everything.  But each was vulnerable that night, and each was brave, and each was held in the tender listening of the rest.  I came away that night profoundly moved and profoundly respectful of my classmates, each one.

The next week, some of us rearranged our seating.

Oppression locks us in segregated seats when we use the language of they. The revolution begins, we can move again when we create the language of we.  It is true of all revolutions, all struggles for human dignity.  For those of us who are mentally ill, our resistance to the stigma of mental illness has to include a transformation of language.  The they of the differential diagnosis must become the we of our essential humanity, created in the image of God.

A regular feature of Prozac Monologues is an award given for the use of language that diminishes us, the language of stigma.  I call it the "OMGThat'sWhatTheySaid! Award."  This month is what they all said, what we all said.  We say they.

I will make this personal.  I gulped that first night at Peer to Peer, to think I might be more alike than different from that young man over there with schizophrenia.  I gulp to think I am more alike than different from that person who has had several courses of ECT.

I go to a NAMI meeting and I try to figure out -- which ones have a diagnosis, which ones don't.  I want others to think that I don't.  That I am not them.

My diagnosis is so safe.  I can tell you, and expect that you won't be afraid of me and my nice safe Major Depressive Disorder.  But I need to change it on my chart and on my disability applications, so that I get the right treatment and get my disability benefits.  I still don't want to change my diagnosis on my blog.  I struggle to say we when writing of my own diagnosis.

I struggle whenever pronouns come up in this blog.  In January I wrote:

...most people with Bipolar II do survive the disease without self harm or suicide. And with proper treatment, including the correct meds, they can thrive.

That felt icky to write.  But that's what I did.  I wrote they.  And I wonder if... No, I know that the we decreases the credibility of my scholarship in some circles.  I want to be taken seriously by doctors, scientists, professors, by -- well, by those who are not they.  If I show my anger, if I take it personally -- Well, what did you expect?  She's not one of us.  She's a mental patient.  She's having a bad day.  It's transference.  It's hypomania.  It's the meds.

To say we is to invite even more loss into my life.

Sometimes I do manage it.  From last October:

Hello, my name is Willa and I have a mental illness.

Words have power.  When one of us says we, we create we.  Somebody else says we -- not out loud, but to the first.  But eventually out loud.  And then another, and then another.

Most of my classmates aren't there yet.  But we will get there.  10.9% of people in the United States are taking antidepressants right now.  Some more of us are taking mood stabilizers.  Some more are taking anti-psychotics.  Right now.  We are everywhere.

When you say psycho, when you say lunatic, when you circle your finger at your temple, when you take a step back, physically or in your mind, when you go on high alert around somebody who is mumbling to himself, we hear, we see, we know.  We are everywhere.  Sometimes you drive us underground, you create the solitary.  Sometimes we do it for you.  We say they too.  That is how oppression works.

Sometimes we speak up.  Because we are we.

We will get there.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. It was really powerful. There is SO much truth in "the power of naming".

    As much as I hate it, I often feel more validated by my medications, by having a named diagnosis, by having it acknowledged by others. Last night my mom commented on something about my personality saying, "This is the person I know. I can't understand how we didn't see how much you were withdrawing in high school. We should have known something was wrong."

    I get scared sometimes (read: a LOT of the time) that it's just me. Pretty generic I guess, but it's the thinking that it's my fault and if I could just "fix" my thinking I would be fine. I need the validation of professionals, and of the people who love me (unfortunately) in order to accept my illness.

  2. Yes! It is time for this. To redeem all that has been, and will be, lost.

  3. Monica, Thanks for your comment.

    I am learning to accept my diagnosis by getting to know people who share it, by learning that they are people, too, and that they need to take care of themselves in some of the ways that I take care of MYself.

    I am also learning to accept it by spending less time with people who want it to go away, who want me to be a person who does not have a diagnosis.

    I am not my diagnosis, but my diagnosis IS part of who I am. I need every day to acknowledge that and to care for myself and my needs, just as people who don't have a mental health diagnosis care for their needs. Some people have to watch their sugar intake or limit fats or take their blood pressure medicine. I have to take my meds, too, and make sure I get enough sleep, and leave a room when (or before) my amygdala gets overactivated.

    Blessings on your healing, by which I mean your peace-making with yourself.

  4. Hi Willa,

    Another interesting blog. I have a diagnosis of Bipolar, which I received after the SSRI (Prozac) I had been taking for 10 years "pooped out". Imagine my horror to go from the fairly benign diagnosis of Major Depression, to the much more serious category of mental illness called Bipolar Disorder. I was horrified! I was NOT one of "them"! "They" are known as the "seriously mentally ill"!

    I then began a two year journey of medication protocols for those with Bipolar Disorder, that resulted in no improvements, many intolerable side effects, and ended with spiraling into the depression the Prozac had kept at bay. I refused ECT as I could not pay for it, and had no health insurance at that time. Instead I arranged my life so that I could be severely depressed, and went home to let nature take its course. That was 4 years ago. Without the Prozac there is no cycling, just chronic depression, which I have found alternative ways to treat.

    I do have a mood disorder. I have learned to manage it by learning some simple facts about how the brain works, and in my case, does not work, and therefore needs "tweaking" to act normal in regards to mood regulation.

    During the time I was on "hiatus" with depression, I was able to read extensively both books and online articles by and about those with "serious mental illnesses". I found a curious thing to be true. I found overlap in the experiences of those with Schizophrenia, and those with mood disorders. I was stunned. In particular Elyn Saks book "The Center Cannot Hold" resonated with me in ways I did not expect (since I have never been involuntarily placed in a psychiatric hospital).

    It was the overlap that surprised me. I am not Schizophrenic, do not meet the criteria for Schizophrenia, do not have a diagnosis of Schizophrenia, but I do have some experiences very similar to those recounted by Professor Saks.

    It is a frightening thought to move from being "we" who are basically normal (but sometimes very depressed), into the "they" who are "seriously mentally ill".

  5. Hey, Willa. Very thoughtful piece. Let me share this:

    Until a short while ago, my writing focused almost exclusively on depression and bipolar. Had I started my "Knowledge is Necessity" blog say three years ago, I would have called it something like "McMan's Depression and Bipolar Blog" as a companion to my website and newsletter with similar names.

    Instead, I decided to look beyond my illness and beyond how I identified myself.

    Also, for years I was involved with DBSA, with those who shared my diagnosis. Now, I'm involved with NAMI.

    I have to admit that when I limited my scope to bipolar and depression I viewed everyone else with a different label as "them," including so-called "normal" people.

    I still identify as bipolar. It's part of who I am and I don't hide it. But it's not all of who I am. All I can say is it's extremely liberating to just be myself and relate to others without wondering what kind of label they may have.

    (Okay, you caught me in a lie. You saw that I became a Facebook fan of refusing to marry a Republican. :) )

  6. This was a brilliant post! I particularly loved the following paragraph:
    "Oppression locks us in segregated seats when we use the language of they. The revolution begins, we can move again when we create the language of we. It is true of all revolutions, all struggles for human dignity. For those of us who are mentally ill, our resistance to the stigma of mental illness has to include a transformation of language. The they of the differential diagnosis must become the we of our essential humanity, created in the image of God."
    All injustce, all atrocity, all oppression bigins with "they" - "they" are the other, not like us, and therefore, because they are not like us, we can treat them differently. Slavery, racism, sexism, speciesism, ad infinitum. When we can see how we are the same, when we can identify with one another, those oppressions become impossible, and we can live together with love and compassion.


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