The realities of life with a label

Were you the clumsy kid that got blamed for every breakage? Maybe you were the class clown who always had the finger pointed at them when learning was disrupted (but thanks for the memories Jamie H – filling the geography room of our Catholic comprehensive with blown up condoms was outstanding).

We always carry labels that other people have assigned to us. Some are relatively harmless, maybe just a bit annoying. Others have the potential to be incredibly destructive.

When you have mental health issues and ask for professional help, the labels you are given can have a terrible impact on any and every aspect of your life, on both your interactions with individuals and with society as a whole – let’s be honest, it rarely makes getting a job easier.

To access the help available, you have to hope that the people who write these labels – formal diagnoses, personality traits or ‘unhelpful’ behaviours – understand that their capacity to do so comes with a great responsibility. You have to trust that their influence won’t be abused, and that they’ll never forget the complex human being behind the simple words they’ve attached to them.

Sometimes those we seek help from do forget to see the person behind the label. Their focus on ‘what we need to work on’ causes them to lose objectivity and they blindly buy into anything they hear that supports their vision.

This week a mental health professional grossly distorted and exaggerated my behaviour when discussing a conversation we’d had with a colleague. Some of the things she said were simply untrue – there’s no other way of looking at them, they just did not happen. When her colleague, a man I trust and who I thought knew me well, recounted what she’d told him I barely recognised it as the same exchange. What hurts the most is that he believed her version of events without question.

He did so because she played on the labels he had assigned.

How can I defend myself? Mental health issues put you at a distinct disadvantage twice over. It’s hard to consider you’re worth standing up for in the first place, and if you do try to assert yourself, your very diagnosis means that it can be impossible to get someone to believe you – especially when your experiences are in direct conflict to statements made by other people.

The person who so utterly broke my trust in her profession and destroyed my confidence in speaking up, has already done a brilliant job at establishing her version of events as fact. Her colleague believed her and he knows me – to everyone else I really am just a collection of labels.

Those labels mean experiences and feelings are constantly minimised or dismissed: “you’re being oversensitive”, “I’m sure that wasn’t their intention” “well, never mind, these things happen and you’re still here” (said after I’d been given 28 Zopiclone instead of 4 at a very low point in my life). When I tried to tell someone about an upsetting appointment with the local crisis team, their response was a sarcastic “aww… of course they did”.

What chance do I stand?

It seems like a lot needs to change but when you take a closer look you see that it’s is a great example of ‘small change, big difference’. A different tone of voice, the same message said with kinder words, an acknowledgement of how hurt I am. Show me you understand. Show me you have heard me. Show me that you value my experiences as much as the next person’s.

Show me that you still see Me – the person behind the labels you’ve attached.


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