Your diagnosis does not have to define you
Fight. It’s what we do.
We come into the world screaming and we often leave the planet still screaming and thrashing. Darwin called it the Survival Instinct, really it is just our innate sense of fighting against decline or suffering.
I have felt periods of sadness for as long as I can remember. They would come over me in unpredictable waves and I felt defenseless. So I did what every healthy person would do: I fought it. As a young adult, I went into overdrive whenever I would sense a depression coming on because I was afraid of what it would do to me.
How do you accept a diagnosis without surrendering to it?
I have been diagnosed with major depression. One of the keys to making progress in any illness is to accept our diagnosis. How do you accept a diagnosis and maintain your fighting spirit without surrendering to it?
Acceptance means that we consent to something that is being offered. Surrender means that we no longer resist, we give up, we concede defeat.
Acceptance maintains our will, surrender gives it away.
Accepting a diagnosis means that in spite of the symptoms or treatments, you maintain your dignity, your being and your clarity of mind. Consenting to a diagnosis and treatment does not mean giving away your spirit. Surrender to a diagnosis is different. It means that you lose your fight and you give up. Surrender is marked with resignation, defeat and a sense of finality with little hope for the future.
In recovery from a mental illness, there is no straight-forward path. For me, I have had both seasons of acceptance and seasons of surrender. As an illness progresses, you have to adapt and your approach needs to change.
It can be difficult to imagine overcoming an illness because that includes being symptom-free or being relapse-free. The beginning of overcoming is the willingness to hold on to hope. No matter how difficult things are, you and I can choose to hope. It takes hope for acceptance to take root.
Acceptance, recovery, and personal agency
How do you let hope and acceptance take root? What follows are five things that I believe will help you to accept a diagnosis without surrendering to it:
1.Hold onto the things you love – I love painting and writing. My illness threatens the things I love by whispering lies and a sense of hopelessness and futility. Maybe no one will read what I write, and maybe my paintings will bring nothing but a yawn. Despite that, continuing to write and paint is a way to maintain myself and my dignity. And when you continue to create, that is when change is possible. Creativity is hope embodied.
2.Educate yourself – Learning about your illness for yourself is one of the greatest ways to maintain your dignity and your personal agency. Personal agency is such an important concept that I am quoting at length from an article by Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D.
Personal agency: Your ability to take action, be effective, influence your own life, and assume responsibility for your behavior… This sense of agency is essential for you to feel in control of your life: to believe in your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior, and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks or situations. Having a sense of agency influences your stability as a separate person; it is your capacity to be psychologically stable, yet resilient or flexible, in the face of conflict or change.
You and I are at our healthiest when we develop our own competence and autonomy and reduce our dependence on other people. This may feel scary, but beginning to take action to acknowledge and then assert ourselves is how we build our agency.
3.Reject the shame – Shame is a story about how you are not acceptable as you are right now. It is a message that you have to be something else, or someone else, to be lovable. Shame can be a form of self-protection, preventing you or me from having to acknowledge our feelings or our situation.
Mental illness is common, but still we feel a great deal of shame because of it. The first step is admitting that while we have been diagnosed with a mental illness, it does not define our potential. Self-compassion is a practice that can help to restore our self-confidence.
4.Know your triggers and the way your illness affects you – As you and I take steps to practice what matters to us, build our sense of self-agency, and practice self-compassion, we are now ready to know more about ourselves and our triggers.
Triggers are unique to you and they are the situations, the emotions, the thoughts that trigger a full relapse, a minor relapse, or a return of some of your symptoms. Knowing yourself is a way to prepare. The more you know about yourself, the more confident you will be.
I use a journal to keep track of my episodes. Some people use different systems like a note pad, or an app on their phone. However you do it, keeping track will help you understand yourself and your needs.
5.Get your own support – this is important throughout the process. How you get support depends on your needs whether you need a therapist, a support group, friends or other professionals.
Your diagnosis does not define you. You are more than the sum of your various labels. If you enjoyed this piece, you will find the following pieces informative: Depression is like a window with a disappearing crack, and Depression will make you a better human being.
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