Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Label Me, Please

For a long while I was afraid to write things such as “I am mentally ill” or “I am bi-polar.” I was afraid of labels.
By calling myself a manic-depressive would I trap my psyche in “sick” mode? By accepting my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, would I prevent healing? By writing the words “I am mentally ill,” was I holding myself to a place that I was, but not where I am now, or where I could go?
I spent a fair amount of time pondering this (I’m a natural ruminator)–I thought about attracting bad karma by writing about my illness, about feeding my anxiety by connecting with others who also struggle with depression, about stifling my spirit by posing all of my questions and frustrations online in an effort to figure out and assemble this humongous, Anchisaurus (a kind of dinosaur) 500-plus piece puzzle of mental illness.
And then I arrived at this guess (because there are no answers): no.
I looked to my mental health heroes–Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Art Buchwald, William Styron, and Kay Redfield Jamison–and realized that they slapped on their labels with pride so to educate and inform an ignorant world about mental illness. Because of these label-wearers, millions of people suffering from depression and other mood disorders have been properly diagnosed and treated.
I thought back to the first days of my sobriety, when abstaining from booze was like running a daily marathon. (I quit drinking right as I left for college . . . the worst possible time in a person’s life to jump on the wagon.) For three years I attended three or more meetings a week, in which I would say something like, “Hi, I’m Therese and I don’t like what happens to me when I drink alcohol,” because I just couldn’t utter the word “alcoholic” two words after the word “I.”
I stumbled and stalled at step one–accepting that I was powerless over alcohol–unable to progress to step two (came to believe in a power greater than ourselves–which I was cool with.) And I obsessed for three years, as my classmates got drunk at the Linebacker bar, about whether or not I was, in fact, an alcoholic.


Toward the end of my junior year, I attended a meeting devoted to the first step.
“Without the first step, you may as well give up the program,” said one guy.
“It’s the foundation,” said another.
I’m doomed, I thought, so I guess I should get drunk.
I drove my Ford Taurus up to the Indiana-Michigan state line from South Bend. (It was a Sunday night and Indiana was dry on the Lord’s day.) I bought a six-pack of Coors, drove back to Saint Mary’s College, parked the car in the student lot, and downed the cans. Then I waited to see what would happen–if puss would start dripping from my nose, if my fingernails would start to curl–some tangible sign that I was, in fact, allergic to these types of beverages.
The next day I confessed to my therapist what I had done, and how I wanted to end my life I was so disgusted with myself. How could I have done something so stupid? Ruin three years of sobriety? And so close to my three-year chip?
“But I can’t do that bloody first step!” I said. “And if I can’t do the first step, I can’t move forward.”
“Therese,” she said very calmly, “you just told me that you are ready to end your life because you are so obsessed with this question and your struggle with alcohol. I’d say, then, that you are powerless over it. If you can’t say that you are powerless over alcohol itself, then say you are powerless over your obsession with alcohol.”
Oh. Now that made sense. Because there were times when I drank that I could stop after two. I didn’t always pass out in a friend’s coat closet or wake up between two trashcans on a neighbor’s lawn. But the obsession about alcohol–well, yeah, that drove me absolutely crazy.
The week of my Michigan road trip was hellish. Friends, hearing that liquor and I were a pair again, invited me to parties that I wanted to attend in the worse way. After all, I deserved to taste the college experience after living three years as a cloistered monk. With one foot in the Linebacker and the other in the monastery, I was more confused than ever. And the puzzlement was poison to my mind and soul, my body and spirit.
Finally I walked to the gazebo in back of Our Lady of Loretto Church, the place where Eric asked me to marry him three years later. I looked over the St. Joseph’s river like I did so many times after my runs around the campus of Notre Dame.
“God,” I pleaded. “I can’t hold onto this anymore. I can’t say for sure whether or not I’m an alcoholic, but I want peace more than anything. And it appears that when I drink bad things are more likely to happen to me. Is that enough to make the first step? I want so badly to please you (remember, I’m codependent) and to do what is right, but I can’t take these obsessions anymore. So if you take this urge from me–all of my preoccupation with booze–then I will do my best to stay sober and do your will. In other words, God, I give this to you. Please take it.”
I lifted my arms above me, and looked at the current in the river. And I felt peace. So much peace. A peace about this whole alcoholism issue that I hadn’t felt since before I tasted my first wine cooler at age 15–when I accidentally found the quiet car on the noisy Amtrak train of my mind.
“Like a diagnosis, a label is an attempt to assert control and manage uncertainty,” writes Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D, one of the first pioneers in the mind, body, health field. “It may allow us the security and comfort of a mental closure and encourage us not to think about things again. But life never comes to a closure, life is process, even mystery. Life is known only by those who have found a way to be comfortable with change and the unknown.”
I disagree. My labels have freed me to live in better harmony with the person I wish to be.

  • Babs

    This is the first year that I have spoken to people about suffering from mental illness. I am, however, careful not to disclose it to people I don’t trust (my employer, for example). Part of my reasoning for disclosing this has been my rather skewed thinking about myself and my abilities, which used to be taken as false modesty or begging compliments, rather than a distorted view of my ability and talent. Even my best friend didn’t understand that aspect of me for years and how I could never believe her favorable comments. I’d rather have someone think I’m suffering the aspects of an illness than that I am some sort of jerk.
    I don’t think of my illness as defining me, but it in some strange way helped me face it more honestly rather than running from it. I believe that the progress I have been making is a direct byproduct of naming it.

  • RaGGaddanne

    I am amazed how , I have been lead to this site,
    This has to be a God send for me,
    My mother was in prison, pregnant with me Heroin addict
    in the 50’s, i was born premature, with staying because
    also, because of Heroin withdrawls,
    The state took me away, I, stayed in an orphange, for
    two years on vitamins and liguid foods, Now remember
    I am just learning all this, because I decided.
    to find out what the heck is wrong, after losing two sons and
    x husband, so,,,,,,i am just know trying to find help for
    helping me. my life is maybe now i will know exactly what
    I, truly need that will be a permanent way of life for me.
    God Bless you all,

  • Julia Johnson

    When I was a child my family thought I was “Retard!” They constantly had discussions with me in the room about what could be wrong with me my emotions were out of control and I was so unpredictable? I even stumped the teachers, they liked me but had no hope for me. I do have a very good sense of humor and this was my defense mechanism. The real true is by the age of twelve I was raped by seven different people, and the main on my brother who thought I was his girl friend? He is ten years older than I am. My parent were both alcoholics, My mom was a bartender as well as a prostitute? I knew I was different from anyone in my family! The only thing was I knew inside of my head I was intelligent. I have a quick witted humor and I thought to myself that someone who was “Retarded” couldn’t be a deep thinker like I was. I have a faith in Christ and married a man who easily loves unconditionally. I even had a beautiful daughter who is very normal. And she made me a Grandma this year with my grandson Ryder!
    I finally had a breakdown four years ago and now dealing with the most horrible childhood that one could imagine. Most all my family are dead now due to the lifestyle they lead. I also have a Published Fictional Book coming out soon. I have always been a writer and now I am a Author!!Yeah.
    I told you all the back story to say this. I was so relieved to have the right label, that is where the healing started for me. I finally know why I act the way I do and why I want to die all the time? I still suffer from depression, so much so I can not work in the workplace any longer. I am becoming proud of myself now for just enduring and even out living the people who where suppose to love me but never really did, I say when I feel justified that they were not worthy of the skin they were in. Do check out my website and my book will be out in about a month. Let me know what you think. I have for about a year wanted to share some of this but I guess the timing is now.
    Thank you for letting me share!
    P.S. I didn’t want anyone to think I condone the use of “Retard” I don’t it is just what they would tease and call me. (As well as Fat)

  • sue

    I am an alcoholic addict. I havent drank or used in 13 yrs..That doesnt mean I havent been sick during those times..I have suffered from terminal uniqueness and all the dry drunk ism’s. I have recently had to come to terms with the fact that I have a mental illness. Two days ago I sat my daughter down and explained what my mental illness was and how it effects me..I never had that…I didnt want her to walk around thinking why is mom always so messed up and ” here we go again” It is an illness…Who would WANT to act, think and feel this way if given a choice!! I also for the first time said to my husband out loud that what was going on with me lately was a relapse in my mental illness. It was freeing to say. It was reading these post here this past week by Therese that has normalized things for me.

  • karen

    All the comments touch me very much. I stopped drinking through the grace of God and AA 24 years ago. This past year, recovering from breast cancer surgery, after my doctor fell off the wagon, I took my time finding a new one and I became addicted to a medication that I was on way too long (and too high a dosage.) I was so angry, and although I had years of therapy and used to be a therapist, the issue of being raped at 15 came up again. (y heart goes out to the commenter with 7 rapes — hang in there. It took me months of unrecognized depression to get to the anger. Before I realized I was addicted to the meds, I knew I was in deep doodoo, thinking alcoholic thoughts. Talking to the right person is essential. I am an alcoholic, and my mental illness is depression.

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