The Labels We Wear

Stuck at home with the flu, I found myself living vicariously through the lives of models between the glossy pages of glamour.

An onslaught of fashion: the “Holy Grail” of makeup, the designer shoes, the do-it-all bags, the dizzying array of necklaces, bracelets, rings, hats, sunglasses. And no magazine is complete without the endless combinations of dresses, jumpsuits, shorts, pants, leggings, blouses, jackets, and jeans.

People who know me would realise I’m usually content with the same few “safe” pieces in my wardrobe that are most flattering and require minimum effort to maintain. Maybe it’s my dislike for contending with crowds and exorbitant price tags that keeps me from shopping for new clothes.

Yet now, I’m experiencing disdain and discontent for what were once timeless go-to garbs. I was definitely perceiving a wardrobe drought.

Then it struck me – is this what it’s like with mental illness? What are the “labels” we wear when it comes to mental health struggles?

“Labels” like: I’m an addict, I’m a schizophrenic, I’m depressive and anxious.

Do we stick by these “labels” because they are safe and what we’re used to for the last 5, 10, 20 years?

Do we feel hopeless and helpless with the lack of options; that it is too crowded, too expensive for change?

What do we do then, when we realise those “safe clothes” no longer seem to fit?

Medical Labelling: A Possible Misfit

It is necessary for the medical industry to “label” and classify illnesses (both physiological and mental) in order to determine the best course of treatment.

Classification is a way of identifying types of illness based on a standard measure of symptoms. However, that in itself has its limits and remains a double-edged sword.

In its fifth revision, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) assesses known mental illnesses along with their cluster of symptoms and duration. Considered somewhat primitive, as compared to other assessment methods employed by other medical specialisations, the effectiveness of the DSM is highly dependent on the information you share with your doctor.

Much like the physical illness, there are symptoms in mental illness which overlap with another diagnosis, termed ‘co-morbidity’.

For example, flu symptoms that wouldn’t go away might just mean a stubborn strain of the virus, or it might indicate an autoimmune disorder. Similarly, experiencing light-headedness might either indicate hypoglycaemia or an impending heart attack.

By looking at symptoms alone, it might be possible to miss out on other indicators, leading to inaccurate diagnosis and therefore ineffective treatment.

Similar to the world of fashion, classification leads us to think that we are all somehow expected to fall into neat categories of Sizes 32, 36, 40. In reality, many of us are in-between types.

This is why it is important to communicate in depth with your doctors or therapist about your lifestyle, moods, activities. Make a log of symptoms you face, the frequency and duration. If you’re still unsure of the accuracy of the diagnosis, seek a second opinion from another specialist.

In the world of mental illness, medical “labels” aren’t helpful in the sense that they disempower the individual suffering from these conditions. In fact, they perpetuate the stigma of bearing an illness.

“Labels” are, at best, starting points, not concrete conclusions.

Go for Fit, not Brand

Don’t let your diagnosis or “label” define who you are. It may be a part of your identity, but it isn’t all of you. You are made of more than that – hobbies, talents, relationships, experiences, aspirations. You are not your illness.

I’m looking forward to the day when mental health research achieves the same level of sophistication as treating cancer and diabetes. After all, the mind is as important as the body, if not more so.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered a solution to my wardrobe woes – online shopping! The only thing is – you can’t try the clothes on before purchasing them, and you’d have to receive the packages by faith.

I’m shrugging off my “safe” old clothes for better fitting ones. What about you?


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