What Defines Us
Fight or Flight?
My brain tells my feet
“Run! Run! Run!”
Fog, as thick as tar.
Straining to walk,
The Black sucks at my feet.
Tendrils creep out and bind my arms.
Wisps like vines wrap around my chest.
So hard to breathe.
The Black, ever creeping,
Covering me, pulling me
Down, Down, Down.
A spark. A pinhole of light.
Fight or flight?
My brain tells my feet,
He takes my hand and
The Black recedes, ever so slowly,
Inch by agonizing inch.
He is the light and The Black fears the light.
I’ll keep my eyes on him and my hand in his.
And today, just for today,
The Black fades away.
Labels. We all have them. We pick them up from the time we are newborns; colicky, happy, constipated. We collect them as we go through life and we keep accumulating them until we die. It’s something we do as humans. We straightjacket ourselves and others into believing we are these things. We let these labels define who we are and not delegate them to where they should rightfully be – just one tiny fraction of what makes us, well, us.
As a child, I was labeled moody, difficult, quick-tempered, and stubborn. I have snapshot memories, or at least I think they are actual memories, of the time before I was about eight years old. My first real memory that I know didn’t come from a photograph or a story happened when I was about seven or eight, I think. I can remember being so despondent, though I don’t remember why, and writing “I want to die” in big letters in purple crayon on a whole pack of notebook paper. I’d write it on a sheet and just throw the page in the floor and move on to the next sheet. Each page a blank canvas for my adolescent misery.
I’m sure I scared my mom to pieces, but I’m also sure I solidified those previous labels in her mind and probably added a few more, like disturbed, unstable, and suicidal. These are not labels that should be stuck on a person, much less an adolescent. With labels comes a certain kind of treatment by others. Whether that treatment is good, bad, or indifferent is dependent on each individual. In my family, we generally didn’t talk about problems, we just ignored them and stuffed any associated feelings down until there was no problem. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.
As I aged out of adolescence and hit puberty, my mood swings and depression, because looking back, that’s exactly what it was, only got worse. It didn’t help matters that I basically had no supervision and was left to my own devices the majority of the time. I pretty much got to do what I wanted when I wanted and didn’t really have anyone to answer to. As long as I made it to school, got acceptable grades, and didn’t get arrested, then I had free reign. I was a hellion. I didn’t get in a lot of trouble, but it’s only because I didn’t get caught.
I remember having bouts of depression so bad during my teenage years that I honestly didn’t see how I was ever going to make it out. I tried numbing using anything I could – pot, drinking, and sex. Mostly sex. I became very promiscuous. That was my next label: slut. That one stuck around a while and hurt a lot, even though I felt I’d deserved it and that it was totally accurate. It stung to walk into a room and have other girls giggle, whisper and leave the room. Of course, I tried to play the brave face, but deep down, I was labeling myself: broken, damaged, unlovable.
I hit a major speedbump my senior year in high school. I got pregnant. The day of what should have been my senior prom, I gave birth via C-section to a 5 pound, 5-ounce little boy who looked like a glowworm from another planet and totally scared the life out of me. That earned me the label of ‘teenage mother’.
When he was two, I married his father, even though I knew better. He was an alcoholic and verbally abusive even before we had a baby. That made me label myself ‘idiot’. Less than a year after we were married, I ended up pregnant again – this time with twins. I filed for divorce and moved my pregnant self and my 3 year-old in with my grandmother. Now I was ‘teenage mother’, ‘divorcee’, ‘abused spouse’, and ‘pregnant again’. I felt ‘hopeless’. I was about to have three children three years old and under, I spent the majority of that pregnancy in the hospital for premature labor, I had no job, I had no car, I had no prospects of ever getting out of the cycle I was in.
Fast forward a year. The twins are almost a year old, and out of nowhere, a tidal wave of depression washes over me and sweeps me away. I am quite certain, looking back, that I had a nervous breakdown. I let my family take my kids and I moved in with my best friend. The oldest went to my mom and stepdad, one twin went to one aunt and uncle, and the other twin to another aunt and uncle. That’s where they remain to this day. Now I am ‘abandoner’, ‘deadbeat parent’, ‘selfish’, and ‘heartless’.
Several years after the breakdown, I met who would become my current husband. We have been (mostly) happily married for almost thirteen years. I enjoyed wearing the ‘wife’ label. We were coming up on our fifth anniversary when we had our daughter. Now I was a “real” ‘mom’. We were active in our community and our church so I was ‘involved’ and ‘Christian’.
Our marriage has had its ups and downs. There was a time in the not-so-distant past that I was addicted to prescription pain medication. I inadvertently got hooked on it after a hysterectomy a couple of years after having our daughter. The addiction lasted several years. ‘Addict’ was the best label to come out of that episode of my life. I still bear ‘ashamed’ for that time period, and perhaps always will. I have been clean for over a year, so now I proudly wear the label ‘sober’.
At one point during the addiction years, I was diagnosed ‘bipolar’. Any mental illness diagnoses, especially one so misunderstood, immediately screams “CRAZY PERSON HERE – BEWARE”. After seeing shrink after shrink and taking medicine cocktails galore, nothing seemed to work… Until we moved here, to Houston. I started seeing a psychiatrist who actually listened to me. I was not, in fact, bipolar, but unipolar depressive with an anxiety disorder and the reason nothing had been helping is because they were treating something I didn’t have. Now I am on a regimented daily cocktail of medication that keeps me from hopping the rails of the sane train and riding on in to Crazytown. I also found a counselor that I feel comfortable sharing my deepest, ugliest junk with. With this, I label myself ‘transparent’, ‘vulnerable’, and ‘hopeful’.
While it may not be necessarily true that you can be anything you want to be, you more than likely will live up to what you label yourself as. Or for that matter, what you allow others to label you as. Naming something is powerful. A name gives something meaning.
One of my goals that this class, and others I’ve taken, has made me realize is that I want to erase the stigma associated with the labels of mental illness. If someone has a disease, like cancer, they don’t say, “I am cancer”. No, they say, “I have cancer”, because the cancer doesn’t define them, it is only one tiny part of them. I
am have unipolar
depression. I am have
anxiety. Why should it be any different with mental illness?
Labels. You can’t escape them, you can’t just dump them, and you can’t erase them once they’re there. What you can do, though, is choose which ones you want to live up to.