ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Being Defined by the Illness, or Not

By Jack Bragen
Thursday January 17, 2013 - 10:51:00 PM

Being defined by a negative event is an unhappy thing. When major events take place, they seem to have a shaping influence on our lives, and this includes an effect on a person's day-to-day thoughts.

When receiving treatment in the mental health system, everything we do has the "mentally ill person" stamp on it. Our housing could be a unit set aside for a person with mental illness; our job could be a volunteer job or could be a "job" which has been provided by the mental health treatment system. The schedule we live on is filled with appointments connected to our mental illness; psychiatry and therapy appointments. We must continuously get our medications filled at the pharmacy. Thus, a person with mental illness often isn't allowed to forget for a moment that we are "a mental health consumer."  

When a person is concerned about how they are defined in life, it means that basic survival issues have probably been dealt with. If you are going hungry, or lack shelter or clothing, you probably don't have the time or the available space in your thinking to be concerned about what defines you. Being concerned with identity issues like this one is a luxury.  

Nonetheless, it can be depressing for a person with mental illness to have their whole existence built around the illness.  

I combated this situation in my twenties by getting employment in which I competed against "normal" people and didn't usually disclose my condition. I performed excellently in electronics training. And then I worked in television repair in several shops, and in most cases, the owners of the shops had no idea that I was fighting against a mental illness and was medicated. Prior to that, I worked at Janitor jobs as well, in which I didn't disclose my disability--and thus there was no accommodation. I had some success and some failure at both of these careers. I also worked at pizza delivery for close to a year.  

Mainstream employment, for me was a way to develop an identity other than that of "sick person who needs help."  

In my late twenties and thirties I also tried self-employment, partly on the premise that if I supervised myself I could create a less demanding work situation than in regular employment. Most of the time, these attempts weren't profitable. However, most small businesses fail, so this is also "normal." To have a profitable company, I would have needed to accept work situations that were more demanding. This is in retrospect.  

At thirty, I had more symptoms of the illness, and I had more difficulty getting and maintaining employment. My work stoppage could be categorized as "early retirement." Having done these jobs and having competed for a while in a "normal" arena is something that can't be taken away from me.  

When I reached forty, my writing career had begun. The norm for writing is that you don't make a lot of money, and you receive numerous rejections. This holds true for my experience. In writing, the playing field is fairly level, since most editors are only concerned with the quality of the work. I'm suited for this career since there is no immediate pressure, since I work from home at my own pace, and since I supervise myself. These are all things that suit my temperament.  

If suffering from a lack of identity due to being excessively institutionalized, it works to do some of the things "normal people" do. The predicament of being defined by mental illness or by some other negative event probably isn't solvable merely through changing one's thoughts.

Just to remind the reader that my books for sale can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format. Hardcopies can also be found at a discount at I'm selling a compilation of the first year of this column, and secondly, a self-help manual which is brief, readable, and to the point.

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