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Am I Mentally Ill?

I’m not ashamed to be depressed, manic or a binge eater.  I’m not even embarrassed to be called “mentally ill.”  But, I don’t think that label explains or helps or opens communication.

What Does Mentally Ill Even Mean?

I’ve been struggling for a long time with labels.  Are they helpful or harmful?  Accurate or just wild guesses?  Move us forward or hold us back?  Open dialogue or close it?

Prince Harry came out last and announced his struggles with depression and anger management after his mother’s death.  He spoke about seeking therapeutic help and how he hopes his honesty about his struggle will help change the stigma of mental illness.  Prince William did the same thing a few months ago.  Other famous people have said the same. This is excellent.   What I want, however, is a better definition or label.

I’ve been given several labels in my life:  bi-polar, manic-depressive, severely depressed, eating disordered, cyclomania.  In the past, I really wanted a label.  I thought if I could just “name” it, then I could conquer it.  The labels didn’t help me conquer – they became my excuse.  “I’m sorry, honey, I spent $500 on books.  I’m manic today.”  All of these labels (and many others) can be clumped under the umbrella called “mental illness.” 

Before you get angry, I’m NOT saying these labels aren’t legitimate.  I’m NOT saying you use your suffering as an excuse for behavior.  I AM saying that I do.  “I didn’t cook dinner today because I’m feeling depressed.” 

I just feel like the labels sometimes become self-perpetuating.  So, rather than say I’m depressed, I might say, “I’m having a lot of sadness today.  What is causing that?”  I still might not cook dinner but I have something more tangible to work with.

“Mental illness” and all the other sub-categories have such connotations attached.  If I tell someone I’m a binge eater, they picture me eating an entire 12x8 pan of brownies.  Or I say I suffer from manic-depression, they start wondering how much debt I have. Can you see why I may not be open about my struggles?  Can you see why the stigma of “mental illness” might frighten me to silence?

I do have some “issues”.  I get deeply sad and have to struggle to dig out (label:  depression).  When I get overwhelmed, I have a tendency to either be hyper-productive or spend money (label:  mania).  When I feel unable to express myself or I feel like my emotions are too ‘hot’, I eat (label:  eating disordered).  None of these labels embarrass me.  I’m not ashamed to be depressed, manic or a binge eater.  I’m not even embarrassed to be called “mentally ill.”  But, I don’t think those labels explain or help or open communication channels.  Sometimes instead of being helpful, these labels are shaming.

I just want people to understand what’s really happening. 

The emotion is real.  It’s gripping his whole body, ready to lift him off the chair by the scruff of the neck and slam him against the wall.”

The Trespasser by Tana French

​​That’s what happens … to me, at least.  The emotion is a normal reaction to a situation.  But for me, sometimes, the emotion grips and chokes me.I’ve decided to use a new term to describe myself.  I have EXCESS EMOTIONAL ENERGY (EEE).   My emotions are neither good nor bad.  Emotions just are.  Sometimes, for me, that emotional energy is too strong (an emotional explosion).  Here is how I would describe EEE:

  • An emotion is triggered that seems to extreme for the situation – an emotional explosion.
  • The emotion lasts longer than seems necessary.
  • The emotion may cause acting out (overeating, crying, spending, sleeping, etc.)
  • The body’s response to the emotion is more noticeable.
  • Oftentimes, a strategy is needed to settle the emotion.
  • A negative emotion can easily spiral into a darker place that may not have anything at all to do with the situation. 
  • Oftentimes, this excess emotion creates chaos and impacts those we care about.
  • During an emotional explosion, it’s very hard to explain what’s happening because the mind goes so fast or it slows down to nothing.  It’s more an experience than words can describe.  This creates a feeling of isolation and even distrust.

Why I Like This Label

I don’t mind being called “mentally ill”.  I’m not embarrassed.  I’ll talk to anyone with vulnerability and authenticity.  My problem is that I don’t think “mentally ill” or “eating disordered” tells me or anyone else anything useful. 

I like EEE better because it allows me to see my emotions differently.  It also allows those that I love to understand a bit better.  It allows me to hold my emotions – it actually forces me to look closer.  It allows me to talk about what’s happening in a way that anyone can grasp.

I’d like to give you a simple example that happened just before I wrote this entry.

An Emotional Explosion

I was trying to read an article on FoxNews when a video advertisement popped up.  You know the kind that you have to listen to for several seconds before you can ‘skip ad’.  Yesterday that would have annoyed me.  Today, I wanted to throw my computer across the room.  I had excess emotional energy or an emotional explosion.  I could label that an ‘anger management issue’ but how does that help?

Instead, I’m taking the time to try to figure out what’s going on with me that would cause an anger outburst.  I’ve spent a few minutes thinking and paying attention to my thoughts & body.  What my real problem is that yesterday I got my feelings hurt and I just ignored it.  I didn’t want to deal with it.  

Will that realization keep me from having another anger outburst?  Maybe, maybe not.  That’s not even the point.  The point is to be more in touch with what’s going on with me and create a safe place for myself.  I can hold the hurt in my hands (I picture an orb but I’ll explain that in another post). 

Emotions are a bit like two-year-olds –- they want some attention.  I’ve given the hurt some attention (not much, only 2-3 minutes) and now I can negotiate a way to address the emotion.  And, even better, since I’ve identified the hurt, it’s relaxed because it knows I’ll find a way to comfort myself soon.

In the coming weeks, I’ll give more complex examples.  Today, I just wanted to explain what EEE is … why I think it’s useful … and how I use it in my real life.

Stigma Meets Dialogue

I’m thrilled people are working to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.  That’s critical.  I hope this blog will open up dialogue about the different ways to look at and understand mental illness.  We aren’t ever going to get away from labels.  Labels have their place.  I just want the labels to tell us something useful!

I must admit that I don’t feel like I’ve described my thoughts on this very well.  If you are feeling hurt or angry by anything I’ve said, then I said it wrong.  The entire point of this blog is to make everyone feel safe with whatever emotions they are having.  Use a label.  Don’t use a label.  It’s all okay. 

I’m feeling frustrated and a bit incompetent.  Those are emotions and they just are.  

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    In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....

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