Opinion

My identity is more than a label

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Michaela van Nierop writes about being diagnosed with depression and surprisingly, attention deficit disorder (ADD). As she comes to term with her conditions and what she needs to do to manage them, she explains that her identity is more than her labels, but that the labels help her to understand herself.

I was talking to my dad recently about the implications of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health problems. The conversation came up when I was thinking about my little brother and how he might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When he was a toddler he refused to sit still and eat; he insisted on running around and playing while he ate. Whoever fed him had to sit nearby and either call him to grab a bite or catch him as he ran past, otherwise he wouldn’t eat. I mentioned this to my dad and he asked me why it had to be a disorder? Why couldn’t my brother just have ADH?

I was in a psychiatric hospital for six weeks earlier this year, and that’s where they diagnosed me with major depressive disorder, dysthymia (another form of depression), anxiety, PTSD and ADD. I was completely overwhelmed when they told me this. I mean I knew I had depression, but it turns out I have two types. The ADD and PTSD were complete surprises.

A disorder does not change my identity

This threw me off balance for quite a while; the PTSD explained so many unexplained triggers I had… the countless times that I would have flashbacks of the night I was raped; unexplained panic attacks that I would have to work through in therapy, as well as seemingly irrational fears. Turns out, all of that was due to having PTSD.

It was also a real shock to my system to find out after 21 years that I had ADD. I was amazed that I had made it so far through university with that and the fog of depression constantly clouding my brain.

I was also told that most of these conditions are incurable. If that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is. So the long list of medically diagnosed mental disorders I had been diagnosed with really got to me. I went to my therapist that day and spoke to her about it. She asked me a very simple question: “What has changed?”

The long list of medically diagnosed mental disorders I had been diagnosed with really got to me.

She explained to me that the tests were necessary to pinpoint those disorders so that my psychiatrist and psychologist knew best how to help me. She said essentially its medical jargon and it does not change anything; it just helps them to help me.

Over time, I have also realised that knowing these things about myself is incredibly helpful. The last time I had a trigger and dissociated from the situation, it was still scary, but I knew what was happening. I knew it was because of PTSD and I didn’t wake up the next day feeling guilty or like I had gone crazy.

I would love to think of PTSD as just post-traumatic stress, but there is no denying that it is a disorder. It does not change my identity; it has become a part of who I am. In terms of the lighter things like ADD, it is also a part of who I am. I now have medication that helps me when I need it.

Knowing these things about myself is incredibly helpful.

The stigma for mental illness has reduced over recent years, but one of the nasty lies that depression tells us is that people are always judging. It is difficult to separate the label from the person. But everyone has a label.

Understanding my labels has given me hope. It has helped me to recognise that these aren’t things to be ashamed of any more than the fact that I have blue eyes. They are a part of what makes me who I am. All the work that I put into making it better is for me and not for others. It is an absolute blessing to be able to understand those aspects of myself. I know I can be my harshest critic, but I am learning to see the beauty of my scars.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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My identity is more than a label