Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Thursday, February 16, 2012

More Than Just My Diagnoses

I have a mental illness. I also have hazel eyes with freckle-like brown spots in them!

It's pretty common for those who have a chronic health problem to start feeling like they ARE their health problem. This can be particularly tough for people who are coping with mental health issues. Not only do mental illnesses change--against your will--the very nature of your thoughts and emotions (and therefore your actions), but often cause considerable feelings of shame as well. For many people, having a psychiatric disorder is not something they can be "out" about, so it's a burden borne alone, only enhancing the feeling of one's sick otherness. I want to remind all of those who have a mental illness, a physical ailment, or feel trapped in any kind of role ("mommy," "the fat girl," etc.) that you are so much more than your diagnosis!

My hair color at thirty.
I am bipolar II. I am also right-handed, likable, a visual thinker, creative, vegetarian, long-waisted, one-eighth Norwegian, 5'7", sensitive to medication, a good swimmer, intelligent, funny, allergic to dust (among other things), hypoglycemic, honest, a dog lover, articulate, a fast reader, afraid of heights, fond of birds, a good dancer, a night owl, a business owner, prone to seasickness, a fan of ice cream, and partial to 19th-century art and literature. I have chronic migraines, a good sense of direction, hazel eyes, a clean driving record, oily skin, attached earlobes, mild asthma, musical talent, a bunion, tight muscles, two cowlicks, a sweet tooth, a sensory processing disorder, an older sister, two chickenpox scars, slender fingers, vivid dreams, a hand tremor, prematurely gray hair, no piercings, and a perpetually runny nose.

This is part of who I am... 
I've been in a psychiatric hospital. I've also broken my right arm, shaved my head, traveled to four foreign countries, collapsed at a music festival, played violin in a youth symphony, studied German, had a colonoscopy, hit a home run, toured a silver mine, been mistaken for a boy, scratched my cornea, ridden in a race car, sung in a choir, visited 30 U.S. states, been in love, had mono, gone snowboarding, dropped out of grad school, been to London, needed stitches, chipped a front tooth, won awards, had turbinate surgery, encountered an alligator, taken photos, formed a goth cheer squad in high school, been invited to the White House, and have been awestruck by the sight of Lake Louise in the moonlight. is this.
Looking at me, you can't tell that I have migraines or a mental illness or used to have paralyzing anxiety. You also can't tell that I dislike talking on the phone, prefer drawing over painting, live with my parents, have always hated seafood, learned to walk at ten months, grew up with no TV, never cared much for coffee, enjoy cooking risotto, love taking long showers, can throw a ball but not a frisbee, won't watch scary movies, never been stung by a bee, know how to make lefse, like to read the encyclopedia, can drive a car with a stick-shift, walk well in high heels, was born in Seattle, like to draw floor plans, had a stuffed dog named Humphrey, want to learn to ride horses, played lead guitar in a rock band, and liked both algebra and calculus but none of the years of math in between.

Mental illnesses? Common.
That pigment stripe? Unusual.
Furthermore, I am hardly unique. According to the statistics I found on, some 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, 46 million experience depression at some point in their lives, 3.2 million suffer from schizophrenia, and 2 million suffer from a bipolar spectrum disorder. This adds up to more than a third of the U.S. population! Additionally, some 51 million Americans have had at least one migraine. I suspect I am far more unusual in the fact that I have a bar of dark pigment on my lower lip that looks like I wrote on myself with pen and I have never once in my entire life had so much as a sip of beer.

My diagnoses are a part--but only a part--of the great, tangled mass of details that add up to who I am. No matter how overwhelming your illness or situation may seem, I want to assure that this is true of you, too.


  1. I love the point you are making here, Colleen, having also struggled with a disorder on the anxiety/depression spectrum. I also believe strongly that when we "out" ourselves, we give hope to many other people who are struggling silently. I also find the statement "you're only as sick as your secrets" to be very true. Bringing mental illness into the light reduces the stigma and, hopefully, makes it easier for others to get help. Love the details in this piece too -- gorgeous.

  2. Oh... Colleen... Beautifully stated...And this is why I never say someone is a diabetic, epileptic etc.... They are people first who may have epilepsy or diabetes. Our disabilities do not define us exclusively.

  3. This is spectacular! As are you my dear. And as we all are. Thank you for this wonderful post!

  4. Wonderful points and post! I think it's an important thing to point out, that one is much more than an illness or a diagnosis. Sometimes when suffering it is easy to forget.

  5. Colleen I say this very thing in my bio, that I am not my disease. It is just something I have. Kudos!

  6. So true, that is the beauty of being human :)

    But sometimes in the middle of suffering it is hard to focus energy on anything else but being ill :(

    It is at those times we need to be reminded we are human :)

    Thanks for the reminder :)

    Have a lovely day, cheers, T. :)

  7. Colleen, in your luscious lavender floral image, I see your individual traits spilling from your soul... the whole image is much more powerful than the individual parts just like the lovely woman you are.
    Yours words say it so well. Thanks for putting it out there.