The Label on My Back is No Excuse

by Bill Brenner on January 9, 2011

I was talking to a priest the other night about therapy and getting diagnosed with a mental disorder when he frowned. “Everyone struggles with something,” he said. “It’s not good to slap a label on them and make them be defined by it.”

Mood music:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks8xhbNQw4g&fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0&color1=0x3a3a3a&color2=0x999999]

He’s not the first priest to react this way.

Back in the fall I was going over a talk I was to give at an upcoming Cursillo retreat. I mentioned the words “mental illness” in there because my struggles with that are partly what brought me to my Faith. The priest stopped me cold:

“I don’t think you should use those words,” he said. “EVERYONE struggles with something. If you throw out labels someone will get offended.”

A few years ago, that would have pissed me off. I would have seen it as the priest belittling me as I was trying to be honest about myself. I also would have cursed him for not understanding the nature of mental illness.

But this guy deals with emotionally distraught people all the time. He has seen people act in rational and irrational ways in his day, and knows that sometimes we have to be careful with words.

It’s also commendable that they don’t want people to have labels.

Some people use the labels they’re given to limit themselves, even feel sorry for themselves. As a kid, I used my Crohn’s Disease as an excuse not to do a lot of things. I cried flare-up the day I had to get in a swimming race during gym class. I used it as an excuse when the stress was getting to me at The Eagle-Tribune and I opted to stay home than spend another night in the newsroom.

Later, after I was diagnosed with OCD, I was tempted to break out the mental illness card when I was scared to death of a business trip that required getting on a plane. I laugh when I think back at that one, because today I love flying. And besides, at that point I wasn’t about to out myself. I was still too afraid of the stigma.

But I disagree with those who say a diagnosis is a bad thing.

I resisted getting treatment for years because I was terrified of what a diagnosis would mean. But I sank so low at one point that I became willing to do whatever it took to be sane.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

–A diagnosis can be a useful thing, if you’re willing to use it to make yourself better.

–Using a diagnosis as an excuse not to do things is pathetic. To do that is to be a slave to fear. I only started to get better after I faced down the fears.

–A diagnosis isn’t a label that’s tattooed on your back like a scarlet letter. It only defines you if you let it. 

–Other people might still try to label you, but they’re just being stupid and they can’t stop you from achieving your full potential.

Yeah. I have a label on my back. But it’s not an excuse to get away with bad decisions.

It IS something that reminds me that I have to take care of myself.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Hillier January 9, 2011 at 4:27 am

I agree with the advice. We’re a product of our experience, good and bad, and we hopefully become the best person we can be as a result of them. The “bad” experiences should define us any more than the good ones would. I’m the person I am today, because of them, not in spite of them, so I’d much rather label myself “Pete Hillier; guy who’s been through some shit. learned and has become a better man, Dad, friend, etc” vs the shit I’ve been through.

Christy January 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I agree with all you said Bill and good for you for all the work you have done. Hopefully you can look back on these achievements on the days you feel like kicking yourself. Easier said than done some days for me.

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