4 Reasons Why I Refuse to Say That Mental Illness ‘Doesn’t Define Me’

Person smiling with eyes closed

Person smiling with eyes closed

“You don’t need to say ‘I’m borderline,’” the clinician corrects me. “You’re a person with borderline. It doesn’t define you.

Says who?

It really bothers me when people without my lived experience eagerly try to define it for me. This is especially true of my struggles with mental illness.

I have borderline personality disorder, complex PTSD, ADHD, and clinical depression. The acronyms alone are a lot sometimes. So when I’m told that these are just “a small part of who I am,” I wonder what planet these folks are living on.

How could these very significant disorders not permeate every aspect of my life?

It’s not like a fashion accessory I can take on and off, or a guest that shows up every now and then. These illnesses are always present, and have been for a very long time.

The ways that I feel, think, and engage with the world have been shaped by my struggles with mental illness. They touch every relationship, every memory, every fear. How could this not, in some ways, define me?

I believe everyone with mental illness gets to decide how to integrate those struggles into their identity, whether you’re neurodivergent, mentally ill, or a person with mental illness. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the framework you choose to articulate these experiences.

What I don’t believe in – and what I take issue with in this piece – is someone trying to narrate those experiences for you.

I’m told all the time how I should talk about my mental illnesses. Under the guise of being “supportive,” people will insist that these disorders don’t change anything about who I am but, instead, somehow exist apart from me.

That could be true for somebody else, but it’s certainly not true for me.

I don’t actually need people to pretend they don’t “see” my disorders, or to ignore the huge impact they’ve had on my life. In fact, I need the opposite.

Here are four reasons why.

1. I Wouldn’t Be Who I Am Without It

During my most formative years, my struggles with my mental health and with trauma were central in my life.

And while those struggles rotate between the front burner and the back burner, they’ve never stopped playing a role in the person I’ve become.

My resilience, courage, determination, humor, and empathy – the qualities that I love and appreciate most about myself – were all born out of the challenges mental illness has presented me with throughout my life.

When you tell me that mental illness doesn’t define me, you’re invalidating the tremendous struggles that have shaped me into the person I am today.

Truthfully, the only person I know myself to be isn’t the person who “overcame” but, instead, someone who persisted – someone who defied the odds by persevering in the face of severe mental illness and trauma and continues to do so to this day.

I’m not above, apart, or beyond. I’m right in the midst of it, surviving. That’s who I am, and who I’ve always been – a survivor.

And acknowledging that isn’t offensive to me. It’s something I’m actually very proud of.

2. It’s With Me Every Moment of the Day

The idea that mental illness is detachable can be a really harmful narrative to sell someone.

It fundamentally misunderstands what mental illness looks like for so many – it can’t be willed away or set aside, as much as we wish it could be.

For me, it’s held in every cell of my body and lives in the tension between breaths.

I don’t have the privilege of existing in any moment where I don’t have to consider how my mental illnesses will impact me on any given day. I’m constantly mindful of triggers, thoughts, feelings, and red flags that can signal a crisis or a need for more support.

I’m not allowed to forget my illnesses – because if I did, I could be harmed or hospitalized.

And because of the chronic nature of what I’m dealing with, these will be challenges I navigate for the rest of my life.

When I’m told that mental illness doesn’t define me, it’s confusing to me because it directly affects how I structure my days and how I live my life.

The medications, therapies, coping skills, and self-care I have to engage with are on their own a huge commitment – both requiring a lot of time and energy – and are something people without mental illness seldom understand.

If you were to add up all the hours I spend managing my mental health, it could easily be its own part-time job.

I don’t get to take a break or unplug.

So, when someone insists that this is “just a part of me,” I remind them that my recovery demands that I take it more seriously than that.

My psychiatric disabilities affect every aspect of my lived experience, even when I’m not in crisis – it’s harmful to pretend that it doesn’t.

3. Being Recognized and Affirmed as Mentally Ill Empowers Me

A lot of people like to assure me that they see me as “just Sam” and not as “mentally ill.”

But I’ve never asked anyone to ignore my mental illnesses. I’m not ashamed of them, and I’m certainly not bothered when those illnesses are acknowledged.

The issue isn’t recognizing that mental illness exists. The issue is stigma – it’s when people lack empathy and competence around mental illness.

I personally feel empowered when I take ownership over my identity as mentally ill. It’s about reclaiming my humanity, and being unapologetic and unashamed. This has helped me heal over the years.

Finding pride within the madness has been an incredible tool in my survival.

I don’t need to say that my mental illness doesn’t define me just to feel comfortable with the presence of these disorders in my life. I feel no need to create a distance between myself and my neuroses.

So do me a favor: Take your cues from me. If I’m comfortable with it, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be, either.

4. It Can Be Super F*cking Ableist

I think it’s convenient when neurotypical people try to tell me that I shouldn’t “let” my illnesses define me, as if reclaiming my identity as mentally ill is an affront to them.

I think it’s convenient for neurotypical people to see a mentally ill person and try to rewrite their struggles so that they take up as little space as possible.

“Don’t let it define you” is sometimes coded language for, “I’m uncomfortable with how visible you are as mentally ill.”

Often times, the people who most readily preach about mental illness being minimally present come from a place of ableism – more specifically, they believe that the goal of recovery is to become as “neurotypical” as possible, rather than living well as mentally ill, on our own terms.

The fear is that if we “over-identify” with our mental illnesses, we’ll never be fulfilled – because mentally ill people apparently can’t be fulfilled unless they’re aspiring to be as far-removed from their illnesses as possible.

I think that’s garbage.

I don’t believe for a second that people can’t take pride in their identities as mentally ill – seeing those struggles and triumphs as formative and significant – and also live exceptional lives, in which we’re thriving and whole.

In fact, I think the two go hand-in-hand. I have found that I’m happier having embraced my crazy, rather than trying to deny it or conform to ableist ideals around neurotypicality.

So yes, my mental disorders do, in many ways, define me and my lived experience. I’m not a “person with borderline,” or a “person with depression, PTSD, ADHD.” I’m mentally ill.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Sam Dylan Finch is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism and the Associate Editor at RESIST. He is a transgender writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a blog exploring the intersections of mental illness and queerness. You can learn more about him here, admire his face on Instagram, check out his portfolio, and become best friends on Twitter @samdylanfinch. Read his articles here.