Identity, mental illness and recovery

“Once I became my diagnosis, there was no one left to recover.”

Holy cow! This really captures something very important! It articulates what concerns me most about the rush to diagnosis for people in early recovery. It’s much less any intellectual concern, concern that a medication might be unhelpful or some concern about purity of addiction—it’s the black hole that this identity issue can easily become.

Remembering who we are isn’t as easy as it might sound. Once we receive a diagnosis, it often becomes the primary focus of our identity. It can become the lens that we see ourselves through. Our new label can overshadow the depth and breadth of who we are as people. To make matters worse, most of those around us started relating to us as though we’d turned into a diagnosis. They ask us about our medication and if we’re taking it; how we’re taking it; how we feel about taking it; how long we’ve taken it. They ask us what other medications we’ve taken; how long we’ve been ill; how many times we’ve been hospitalized, homeless, in jail, on drugs, and so on. In other words, those around us start seeing only the parts of us that aren’t working too well. Guess what? This often causes us to only see that part of ourselves too, and pretty soon we have trouble remembering who we are as a person. We join the club and start to see ourselves as a diagnosis too. One of our colleagues put it this way: “Once I became my diagnosis, there was no one left to recover.” She really captured the essence of the problem in that statement. The more we settle into the identity, the more we forget who we really are. Now the good news is that that person, the one that’s really us, is still inside us all along, buried under layers of diagnoses, medications, victim stories, hopelessness and helplessness.

This identity also seems to have a special pull for many addicts. Why is this narrative of their difficulties preferable to an addiction narrative? I’m sure there is no one reason, but this strikes me as important:

“I heard them say, “It’s your job to recover.” I thought, “No! It’s not my job. It’s your job. You’re supposed to fix me.” I was in total shock. I’d been led to believe that I had no role in getting better and I was waiting to be fixed by someone else. Learning that it was my job was very scary…

When one feels utterly powerless, hopeless and terrified, maybe an identity that offers a more passive path is more attractive?

By Jason Schwartz July 6, 2011