Guess what!  I’m mentally ill!

Somehow, after 66 years of living and 30 years of therapy, I had no idea.  It turns out that I suffer from an avalanche of disorders.  I’m good with the PTSD diagnosis; those years of flashbacks don’t lie.  I have SAD without a doubt; every winter I sink into lethargy and gloominess.  Anxiety, well, I didn’t really notice it until a therapist pointed it out a decade ago.  I’m a little fuzzy on what it looks like and how it affects my life, but, hey, I’m game to add it to the list.

Based on what I’ve read, though, I have many more disorders.  For example, I have always sunk into self-loathing whenever a boyfriend dumped me: rejection-sensitive dysphoria.  I also have what a co-worker diplomatically calls a “rich emotional life”–or, in today’s lingo, poor emotional regulation. Plus, there are times when my husband drives me nuts and I check out emotionally for a while: avoidant attachment.  Worst of all, I’ve discovered a diverse panel of internal voices that frequently fight for air-time: dissociative disorder.

I don’t mean to be dismissive.  I‘m fully aware that these labels describe patterns of thought, mood, and behavior that can cause serious distress to those who are burdened with them.

But sometimes I wonder: how do I get up in the morning?

Naming the Inner Parts

It has recently come to my attention that, ahem, I may be more dissociated than I thought.  That my most identifiable inner selves—frightened child, angry teen, nature girl–may be accompanied by others I’ve kept from my own awareness for a long time. For example, one part (trying to keep me safe) wants me to just shut up about the past already; another throws up a smoke shield of fury whenever I’m feeling vulnerable.  There are also parts that come forward at certain stages of my life and then recede the snarky teen, the lusty 20-year-old, the saintly earth mother, the good (e.g., self-sacrificing) daughter.

My therapist says I’m more “fractionated” than most people.  And that is how we’re working together: getting the various parts to meet each other, to negotiate, to extend tolerance and understanding.  But are these really separate “selves” I contain within me, or am I just applying labels to various, normal aspects of my personality?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  After all, as the therapists argue, any degree of dissociation is a healthy and normal reaction to an intolerable situation.  But I still feel a bit queasy: what does it mean if my internal arrangement really is a bit more, well, dis-ordered than most?

Mental Health:  The Absence of Dis-order?

I can only think of one person who strikes me as having her sh—I mean, life together: I’ll call her Beth.  I worked with her at a home for elderly persons (aka old people) a few decades ago. As a paragon of success, she was not what you might expect. She was plump with curly hair, dressed conservatively in tan khaki pants and a flowered blouse.  The position both of us occupied—activities coordinator—didn’t require a college degree and the paycheck was minimal.  She hadn’t published, posted, blogged, YouTubed, or in any other way made herself stand out. But she laughed easily and often.  She loved the old ladies as she loved everyone: not from a need to rescue them, but out of respect for their inherent wholeness. She saw me that way, too, when I felt like I was falling apart. I was in my 30s and still working part-time, living alone in a studio apartment, and just beginning to have a decade’s worth of flashbacks.

Though everyone brightened in Beth’s presence, I noticed that men especially flocked around her.  It took me a while to understand why.  Once we took a small group of elders to the Como Zoo.  We walked around enjoying the open-air pits that housed a variety of creatures.  Of course, the apes and monkeys were a favorite.  That day, as we watched, one of the orangutans swung close to the edge of the pit, stopped, and stared directly at us.  Suddenly she flared her legs and flashed her–um–private parts.  I was stricken with embarrassment and a fierce wish to pretend nothing had happened, but Jan burst out laughing: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” she shouted.  A few of the old ladies looked pained, a few covered their faces to hide their giggles, and the rest guffawed loudly.  Beth was sex-positive before the term was invented.

Still, even Beth experienced periods of disorder.  At times she pondered leaving her 30-year marriage, but always decided to stick it out: “He isn’t good with feelings,” she explained, ”but he can still make me laugh.”  She also had issues with her teenage son, who was very popular and smart but didn’t want to go to college.  Instead, he wanted to sell cars.  It made her want to rip her hair out: “I just can’t talk to him about it; Dale has to take over,” she told me. They were all in family counseling.

When Labels Help

There’s no doubt that labels can be helpful.  It can be a relief to identify a recognizable pattern of behavior.  In a way it makes you feel more normal: This has been seen before; I’m not the only one; if I can name it, I can change it.   I needed lots of labels to help me through healing: that kind of behavior is abuse, that kind is violent, that is intrusive, that is covert. You have complex PTSD, which is different from regular-old PTSD (now I understand why healing has been longer and harder and doesn’t respond to typical therapies). They are perpetrators, criminals, pedophiles, pornographers, sociopaths.  I was a victim of their reprehensible behavior, and I’m a survivor of it—all their attempts to destroy me failed.

You can ask yourself: Does this label draw my attention to something I haven’t seen before?  Does it help me understand and have compassion for myself or someone else?  Does it help me broker a peaceful co-existence among the disparate parts of myself?

Labels are like tools for home repair: you pick one up when you need it, put it down when you’re done. You get to decide which repairs take priority.  You get to decide whether a particular tool is or isn’t useful for the job.  You get to decide whether you want to keep the tool around for ongoing maintenance or sell it on e-Bay once a job is done for good.

What I Call Myself

The truth is none of us is free of disorder.  We have bloopers in our DNA.  We make dumb decisions.  Have mixed motives.  Put on innocent looks and swear like toddlers that we didn’t dent the car.  Fight over too many peppercorns in the kitcheree (yes, for real).    We bumble and stumble our way around, sure we know what is good and right until we smack into a wall (frequently named “teenager”) that makes it crystal clear we are mistaken.

So most of the time I do not identify myself as mentally ill.  Nor would I say I’m disordered or diseased.  Even the label CPTSD describes only a portion of who I am.  Most of the time I’m a healthy, functioning, whole person working to weather the typical stresses of life.  Yes, I deal with the effects of trauma.  But trauma is a fact of life all over the world: floods, wars, pandemics, malnutrition, captivity, death, illness, displacement.  It makes me feel less alone, I guess, to join the others in that long parade of joy and suffering, to call myself, mostly, human.

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