essay

One depressed comic, one bipolar writer and notions of one true “self”

I recently watched 19-year-old Kevin Breel’s June talk for TedxYouth, called “Confessions of a Depressed Comic.” Breel describes what it’s like to be seen from the outside as an upbeat, thriving young man while struggling internally with depression. He also calls for a movement to break down the stigma against depression and other mental health conditions, which in the past made him too afraid to discuss what he’s going through.

I was struck by a few different aspects of Breel’s talk (a notable thing, because watching well-groomed youth like myself call for idealistic movements usually makes me skeptical and/or queasy). There’s his honesty and commitment to fighting misconceptions, for sure. Even beyond that, Breel is accomplishing something less visible but equally important: accepting depression as part of his identity without letting it define him.

That might sound like an obvious, if not necessary, move. When individuals live with a chronic condition, anything from diabetes to depression, of course they would try to confront its reality without letting it consume their lives. But I think that’s much easier said than done. Mental health diagnoses complicate the already thorny issue we all contend with of figuring out and trusting our sense of self — our often shifting ideas of who we truly are.

In fact, the tensions between selfhood and mental illness were the focus of an article in the April 26 New York Times Magazine. Describing her struggles with bipolar disorder, Linda Logan asks why psychiatric treatment doesn’t place more emphasis on maintaining the individual’s sense of identity. It’s a fair question. Being diagnosed with a mental disorder means having deeply personal feelings equated with illness, and illness is something to be defeated, stamped out. But what does it mean when the label of “illness” asks someone to stamp out experiences that, for better or worse, have informed his or her identity?

One response I’ve seen to this question, particularly in mental health advocacy, is that mental illness blocks people from their “true selves.” The idea is that once an individual is properly treated and at least somewhat relieved of the suffering, she can return to who she really is. Certainly some people have felt that way. And having never gone through anything like chronic depression, I can’t speak from direct experience. But I also can’t imagine that everyone dealing with mental illness has viewed those struggles as completely separate from their real identity, including their perspectives on the world, other people and themselves.

Despite having clearly thought a lot about the issue, even Logan encounters some contradictions in her attempt to reconcile the experience of mental illness with the sense of having one true self. She begins the article by describing her old self, the one not reduced to overwhelming lows by bipolar disorder. But then in the next paragraph, she calls her illness “insidious, gradual and inexorable,” adding that she had a preview of depression in high school.

So instead of there just being the old”healthy” self and the later “sick” self, the reality here seems to be a continuum. And within that continuum, each “self” contains at least a seed of the traits that have led to debilitating illness. To add another complication, it’s impossible to disentangle exactly which characteristics of Logan’s brain and mind produced bad experiences versus good ones. Some elements of her mental life that made her listless or psychotic at times could have, in other contexts, contributed to her intelligence, creativity, empathy or other positive qualities.

Embracing this complexity, Logan ends her article by saying she means to celebrate her 60th birthday with “an ingathering of selves” — note the plural there. To push forward, it seems, she’s had to accept multiple identities, none of which defines her on its own.

It looks like Breel’s doing the same, speaking for his experience on his own terms. And while that’s a valuable thing for anyone to do, it’s especially powerful coming from a community like the wide range of people with depression. Communities with a ready label like “depressed” (in the vein of homogenizing descriptors like “rich/poor people,” “gay/straight people,” etc.) are prime candidates for stereotypes. So it’s all the more meaningful when labeled individuals like Breel and Logan find platforms to speak for themselves.

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