Tuesday, May 28, 2013

You Are Not Your Diagnosis

Have you ever received a medical or psychological diagnosis? The funny thing about diagnoses is that they can be very helpful---for a minute or so---but can actually exacerbate your condition if you take them on. The purpose of a diagnosis is to help health care folks quickly grasp what's going on with a patient so they can draw upon already-collected information and treatment options. It can also provide a framework for patients to understand what's happening and how they can help themselves find relief. Ideally, the diagnosis functions like toilet paper---it serves an important purpose, and then gets flushed. (Well, maybe not flushed, but you get my point.)

When I was studying psychology in graduate school, I took a class called Diagnosis and Assessment. It was based on a diagnostic manual called the DSM-III, which was the bible of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. I remember buying my own shining copy of the DSM-III, and handling it with great reverence and care. I thought it was scientific and authoritative, and that the disorders in the book were, I don't know, real. I studied it carefully, and busily diagnosed myself and everyone I had ever known. Oh my God! Who knew we were all so screwed up?

It wasn't until I'd been practicing psychotherapy for several years that I realized the DSM-III was, well, a bunch of hooey. These supposed "disorders," I eventually realized, were just the human psyche doing what the human psyche does feeling stuff, thinking stuff, and getting itself trapped in certain, often stereotypical, patterns, like anxiety, depression, and phobias. These serious-sounding diagnoses were usually (but not always) normal thoughts and emotions that had taken an unfortunate turn and eventually developed into an affliction. (And as I review my medical history, I can apply the same observation regarding physical diagnoses.....the body doing what the body does in response to personal and environmental factors).

This is not to say that we should dismiss and ignore these symptoms or diagnoses. If we're suffering (physically, mentally, or emotionally), we want to find a way to help ourselves, as well as seek outside help if necessary. And there is a great deal of information and help available, some of which is critical to our survival, and much of which can make us sicker and more desperate.

Identifying with your Diagnosis

I could go on about the ills of the medical system, lack of understanding regarding the mind-body connection, the misuse of prescription drugs, etc., but honestly I think the biggest problem with medical and psychological diagnoses is that we, the patients, tend to hand over our personal authority to imperfect systems, and then over-identify with the labels they slap on us. "I am Bill," becomes, "I am Bipolar." And "I am Denise," becomes "I am disabled." Then, a whole, personal universe forms around that diagnosis:  fear, resistance, alienation, dehumanization, feeling broken or defective..

The following is a quote from Robert Schwartz's book, Your Soul's Gift, which can be adapted to virtually any diagnosis, disorder, or disability:
"If one could look at depression, anxiety, fear, or any other negative emotion [or illness] as just one part of the self that is confused [or not well], then there would be another part of the self that could look at this with an understanding and a gentleness that would reassure it. But people tend to identify completely with their depression, anxiety, or fear, and then feel unbalanced. They cannot find their core, their true self, anymore. The first thing to realize is that you are not your fear [or addiction, or illness, or disability]. You could see the fear, for instance, as a child who comes to you for help. By seeing it that way, you will feel that you are much bigger than the fear. You can get in touch with the child, speak with it, and understand it. Sometimes a therapist can play the role of this parent or guide. The key always is to find a place in your awareness from which to look at the fear and not be the fear." 
And so I leave you with this idea that you are not your diagnosis, and you never could be. Underneath it all, you are a brilliant, radiantly healthy soul who is experiencing a little, or a lot, of imbalance in your physical manifestation. Even if your body is terminally ill or you have a debilitating mental illness, know that this is not who you are---it's just what you're going through right now. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, and if you can reconnect with your inner knowing, you'll realize, firsthand, that this is true.