"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.