I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the terms that we use to describe our various states of mental health, and some brain vomit got into the computer. 😉 Have fun with this one!
“Mental Illness” has both lost and gained popularity in the last few years. Those who like it do so because they want to legitimize mental health challenges as real challenges people face just like any other health problems. I understand their motivations, but I tend to be on the side of hating the term. It feels clinical, sterile, othering, and disempowering when I think about applying the label to myself. It makes me feel like I need to be fixed, which is not something I believe, despite my strong identification with my PTSD (and let’s face it, I probably have an anxiety diagnosis as well…or could if I don’t). I might be wounded, but I’m not someone’s lab project.
The other popular phrase I’ve encountered in the peer movement is “mental wellness.” On the surface it sounds better. It attempts to emphasize strength over weakness and de-stigmatize mental health. For some reason, though, it still leaves me with the an emotional gag reflex (ooh, remember this post?). I want to smack anyone who asks me what my wellness plan is.
Perhaps by itself, mental wellness wouldn’t irritate me so much if it weren’t for the language surrounding the wellness idea. Questions like, “what do I look like and act like when I’m well?”
I know the answer they’re looking for is “cheerful, happy, good, upbeat, calm, peaceful” and other such saccharine words, but I don’t think that’s wellness. My mental wellness plan doesn’t involve trying to maintain happy or taking emergency action because I feel sad.
Ultimately, though, I think my aversion to “mental wellness” comes from the fact that it’s still working within the dichotomy of wellness/illness. It’s a paradigm within which I don’t even want to operate for my mental health because it sets up certain experiences as inherently “unwell.”
I prefer to think of my mental state as being somewhere on the spectrum of wholeness or fragmentation.
When I’m fragmented, I’m not connected or engaged with parts of myself. I’m suppressing emotions, thoughts, memories, desires, maybe even experiences. I disconnect from my psyche, either entirely ignoring valid emotions or becoming stuck in them. Fragmentation interrupts my daily functioning and interferes with my relationships.
Maybe that sounds like what most people think of as “illness” or “unwellness,” yet I have found that fragmentation can involve happiness. If I’m stuck in happiness, refusing to move through my process by maniacally inducing a feeling of “good,” then my happiness is as detrimental to my wellbeing and wholeness as depression or anger can be.
On the flip side, when I’m moving towards wholeness, I’m integrating all of the parts of myself and actively engaging in my process. Sometimes that means that I’ll be joyous and upbeat. Sometimes it means I’ll be balling my eyes out or screaming into a pillow. The difference isn’t what I’m feeling in that moment. The difference is in whether I’m engaging informatively.
No emotion is inherently unhealthy, negative, dangerous, or bad. All of them have a place in being a whole person. The only thing that can be unhealthy, negative, dangerous, or bad are the scripts we apply to our emotions…and one of those scripts, I’m starting to think, might be the script of mental wellness.
If I am moving in my process, no matter what emotion I’m experiencing, I can be well if I am connected to myself. Healing isn’t about moving towards good feelings. It’s not always about “getting better” or “recovering.” It’s about moving towards integration of all our aspects.
I love the ideas here. And can relate to them immensely. Fragmentation and wholeness — I experience it similarly to how you described both of those states, and I am working toward wholeness, where I integrate all of my aspects together. Not quite there a lot of the time, but it’s always a work in progress.
Thank you for writing this. It helped to read it.
[…] Wellness vs. Wholeness: Breaking Out of the Mental Illness Paradigm. […]
I’m following your through process, and feel like “disabled” has a similar vibe to it. I think that there are many stages of abled or disabled, much more a spectrum like the stops between illness and wellness.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂
fantastic piece. I love your blog and I love that you are challenging these conventional ideas we all blindly adhere to! right on! keep it up!!