Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Am Not My "Labels" - I Am Me!

I'm sitting here reflecting on all of the "labels" that have been used over the past 41 years to describe me as a person. I remember being labeled "gifted and talented" as an early elementary student. Kids with this label were separated out from the "others", those not considered gifted and talented, and given extra attention, extra opportunities to participate in academic enrichment programs and extracurricular activities. (The "others" weren't given these same opportunities in the 1970s. Where's the common sense in that?) I was a part of a Saturday educational program which exposed me to algebra, trigonometry, geometry, Latin word roots, vocabulary words that were longer than my arms, and challenging essays to read, comprehend, and discuss intelligently. I was 10 years old. At the completion of this program, I was registered to take the SATs right along side the high school students. My feet didn't even touch the floor sitting in those desks. Interestingly enough, I achieved my highest score on the SAT that very first time I took it, even though I took it 4 more times before graduating high school. So...I was SMART. And that meant I would be going to medical school because that's what smart people do.

I moved through college and graduate school with an acceptable GPA, despite the new label I was given. I became known as "the girl who drank way too much", too many nights in a row, and had to, on more than one occasion, be literally dragged back to my dorm room by friends who watched out for my safety. By my mid twenties, that label was officially upgraded to "alcoholic". This should come as no surprise to those who attended school with me or those who would later come to be coworkers and friends of mine. That label is not nearly as desirable as being an academic overachiever although I do believe that I did a much better job of being an alcoholic than I ever did of being a student! Medical school was out. Graduate school was almost out. I struggled to be a dependable employee and citizen. I equated being an alcoholic with being a dismal failure. I relabeled myself as a LOSER, because that's what alcoholics are.

Then in 1998, it became clear that there was something else going on besides active addiction. I found myself becoming increasingly more out of control, even during periods when I had been able to stop drinking for a while. Some days, I was so depressed that I couldn't even get out of bed. I wouldn't shower. I wouldn't eat. I wouldn't answer the phone. I wouldn't open my blinds. I simply layed in my bed for days on end. Sometimes I'd cry for hours, other times I couldn't cry at all. Then after several weeks of deep depression, my brain would get a surge of activity from what seemed like the middle of nowhere and I was on top of the world. I went shopping and bought lots of things, most of the time not even remembering what I bought. I maxed out all of my credit cards. I had ten of them at one point. I would go for drives with the windows down, music blaring, chasing down other cars and semis and blowing right by them. There were times when, out on the highway, my speed exceeded 100 mph. If you've ever driven a compact car at that speed, you know that as you whiz by a semi, the car vibrates and there is this tremendous draft or pull towards the truck. I was never scared. It never occurred to me that that was dangerous. I did not have a death wish, I was having fun. I finger painted my coffee tables. I went for days on end without sleep, not even feeling tired physically or emotionally. My creativity flowed easily and I came up with so many brilliant ideas! I drove to Utah and back, stopping only to go to the bathroom and buy another cup of coffee, with a dead rabbit that I had accidentally run over, gently wrapped in a light blue baby blanket on the front passenger's seat of my Mazda Protege, in a snowstorm one January about 6 years ago. When I finally saw a psychiatrist, he told me I had a mental illness. I was Bipolar. I took that to mean that I was CRAZY because I thought that is how mentally ill is defined.

It was around that same time when I was finally ready to be open about my sexuality, something I thought I'd never do. I was preparing myself to live a life alone, no intimate relationships, believing I was a sinner damned to hell for all of eternity. Once again, another label. This time BISEXUAL. I have had a number of unfortunate consequences as a result of people finding out that I wasn't that "nice girl" boys could bring home to meet their mothers and I quit several jobs because I was being harassed and didn't have the inner strength and courage to stand up for myself and fight for my rights. I felt "less than" and so, believing that I somehow brought all of this upon myself, moved to another state and started over. But I soon discovered that no matter where I moved, there I was.

I am also a "PK" - the oldest daughter of a United Methodist minister. Most people assume that I know almost as much about the Bible as my father does. Surprise - I know very little about it. I never saw the point in learning anything about God because I knew that I was going to be going to hell. Isn't that where all "over achieving, alcoholic, crazy, bisexuals" go?

Thank God I do not always see myself as the sum of my labels today. There are still some days where I wonder how or why I became such a misfit. Why couldn't I have been a "normal" middle class, mid western girl interested in starting a family and joining the PTA or becoming a Girl Scout leader? If I had, my life would not be nearly as interesting as it is now. I would not have met some of the fabulous people I call my friends today. I would not be open to meeting new people. I don't even use the label "strangers" because I believe that all people are "strange" in their own ways. Today, I do not identify myself as an "overachieving, alcoholic, crazy, bipolar, bisexual". Because those labels place a limit on how I am perceived and on who and what I have the potential to become. I'm still smart and I still love to learn. I am sober, for 2 years and 10 months now. I have bipolar disorder but I am not my illness. That may seem like simple semantics but it is important for me to realize that my mental illness does not define me. Nor does my IQ, my alcoholism, or my sexuality. I refuse to continue to apologize for who I am. I am coming to know God in my own ways. I may not attend church regularly, but I have developed a very spiritual connection with God and pray and meditate daily. I keep a list of things I am grateful for. I volunteer my time to help others in need. I extend the hand of friendship to those who cross my path, no matter what labels they are carrying with them. And most importantly, I am MYSELF! And I kinda like ME today, labels and all.

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