I want to give up the term “mental illness”. I have wanted to give it up for ages, but I have yet to find a suitable replacement. I think I’ll go with psychiatric disability for now, until something better comes along. Or maybe that’s perfect and I’ll come to love it.
What I do know is that my son is not sick. He is not ill. He is not battling some germ that has entered his brain and must be defeated. This is it. This is his brain. This is the way that his synapses connect, the way that his neurotransmitters fire, the way that his chemical levels are developing. It is no less a part of who he is than Diva’s muscle tone or under-developed optic nerve. It cannot be fixed.
It does not need to be fixed.
I know! That’s a shocking statement. Mental illness – it does not need to be fixed? What?
But we’re not talking about his cough or his tight chest or the redness around a cut, all the things that get infected and sick. We’re talking about his brain. We’re talking about something that cannot be changed. We’re talking about something that is the very foundation of everything he is. Do I want him to think that his brain is less than, unworthy? Do I want him to think that HE is less than, or unworthy?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s true that he has a disability. He needs supports. He needs medication in the same ways that Diva needs AFOs and a wheelchair. Medication supports him to shine forth at his best, and I want nothing less for him. He needs sensory diets and regular snacks and visual schedules and structures.
Even more than that, though, he needs a world that doesn’t shun him. He needs a world that doesn’t think he’s weak because he is not able to do homework or take standardized tests. He needs a world that doesn’t judge him or his mama when he becomes upset and hits himself in the middle of a store. He needs a world that doesn’t call his panic attacks or psychotic breaks “acting out” like his current school does, as well-meaning as they may be. He needs a world that is filled with compassion and kindness, but also believes that he is able to make a contribution. And he is. He is helpful, funny, and sweet. He likes to lead others and help cook pancakes on the weekends. There’s a lot that he can do, especially in a world that wants him to do it.
He needs to know that about himself. He needs to know that he is different, that he will struggle, and that he will be okay. He is valued. He is worthy. Our words are one of the ways that we say that, and mentally ill just doesn’t come across that way. Whether it’s the term itself or the stigma that has been built around it, we need to leave “illness” behind, much in the way that we have abandoned the term retarded.
I will teach him about his brain. I will teach him that some things are hard for him. I will teach him to ask for what he needs. I will also teach him that his brain is beautiful, because it is.