Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureSpring 2016
Mental Illness and the Positives of Labeling
By Denise Noe
“What is wrong with me?” I would ask.
Very often, the answer was, “I don’t like to get into labeling.”
Repeatedly, I found people would say things like, “I don’t think labels mean much.”
Some people believed labels, at least as applied to mental disorders, were “unnecessarily confining.”
It seemed to me that the lack of a label left me in the lurch. For most of my life, people have been flummoxed by my behavior. They wonder why I cannot remember where I was the previous day or why I could not find my way from one place to another. They get upset that I fail to focus on what they are saying or to remember it. They cannot understand why I don’t recall what clothes I wore the previous day or why I might fail to assist others with normal chores. They are offended that I speak inappropriately or brusquely. They are even more perplexed when they hear me suddenly scream in the streets or overhear me yelling in my house when they know I am alone. People cannot understand why a seemingly intelligent person cannot hold down a job for more than a few days, or why I cannot drive, cook, or even adequately keep my living area clean.
How could I explain behaviors that appeared downright rude or inconsiderate? How could I explain the odd lack of usually expected “activities” in my life?
“I have emotional problems,” I would say.
“We all do,” was the inevitable answer.
And I was left feeling helpless. I could not give any kind of an answer when I was – as I inevitably was – asked about behaviors that defied normal understanding or absences in my life that were equally puzzling. The inability to give a real reason for my behavior meant that it was inevitably offensive to many people.
Finally, I was able to persuade a group of mental health professionals to give me the “label” that this group had given to another organization about me:
I read: “Schizotypal personality disorder with obsessive and compulsive features.”
Quite literally, I let out a sigh of relief. Finally, the horrors to which my emotional situation had subjected me had a name. Finally, I had an explanation that I could give other people when they reacted in bafflement to the (often offensive but never deliberately so) puzzle that is me.
One person said, “That’s a mouthful” when I described my condition.
Several have said, “Oh. So that’s the reason.”
That last reaction showed that they understood me, at least to some degree, and that the label had directly led to that understanding.
The reluctance to affix labels to mental disorders seems based on the perception that such labels are confining and stigmatizing. For me, a label has been freeing. It has fostered understanding and, I think, led others to view me much less harshly than they did when I had no label.
Of course, it is possible for labels to do harm. Labels can lead to thinking of a person in terms of something that is not, or at least should not be, the only element that is central to that individual’s identity. No disabled person should be completely defined by his or her disability, regardless of whether that disability is mental or physical.
To relate to a blind person appropriately, it is necessary to know that the person is in fact blind. But it should be emphasized that no one is just a blind person. One blind person is also a half-Hispanic and half-Asian gay man, a liberal Democrat, a fan of classical music, and a Born Again Christian; another blind person is a straight white woman who is apolitical, an agnostic, and a happily married housewife who obsessively collects Elvis Presley memorabilia; a third blind person is a conservative Republican, a Roman Catholic, an Italian-American, and a doll collector.
One person who has cerebral palsy is an African-American woman who is multiply tattooed and pierced, loves to garden, remains a virgin into her early thirties, and believes in astrology; another person with cerebral palsy is half-Irish and half-Native American, hates cats but loves dogs, likes to paint landscapes, and yearns to someday marry a billionaire; a third person with cerebral palsy is a plump red-haired asexual white woman, champion bridge player, a Libertarian Episcopalian who never misses an episode of Law & Order SVU, and has been collecting stamps since she was in the sixth grade.
Similarly, I am not just a person with Schizotypal personality disorder with obsessive and compulsive features. I am Denise, who struggled with math all through school and hated it, but currently regularly practices math and likes it; I am a person who made it a personal project to read the Bible from cover to cover; I am someone who has political beliefs that are by turns liberal, conservative, and radical. I am five feet five and a half inches tall; I struggle with weight gain, love chocolate chip ice cream, chicken, and roast beef and cannot stand hamburgers or meatloaf. I am a woman of mostly European descent with some Native American ancestry who recently discovered she also has Jewish ancestors. I collect rocks and foreign coins.
Every individual is many things. However, this should not discount that knowing a person is disabled, and having at least a general idea of how that person is disabled, can be vital to understanding that person.
In many areas, people need labels to make informed decisions. When a person is shopping, that consumer needs a label to know what type of an item is being purchased. Truthful labeling, especially with a list of ingredients, is a vital guide to decision making.
Similarly, a person with a mental disorder who is applying for medical insurance or other assistance requires a label that states that there is more of a problem here than the sort of problems any person experiences.
I hope this essay will open discussion on this topic and show that labeling can be both positive and necessary.
As noted in the essay, Denise Noe has schizotypal personality disorder with obsessive and compulsive features. She also suffers from chronic lower back pain. She has published essays, articles, short stories, poems, and reviews in a variety of venues. She collects rocks, foreign coins, and letters from high-profile prison inmates. Her interests include math, literature, film (especially old movies), social issues, and geology.