I don’t want my son to hate his brain.

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.

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2 thoughts on “I don’t want my son to hate his brain.

  1. As someone with two diagnosed mental illnesses (or psychiatric disabilities), this made me think a lot. Particularly about the idea of being “sick”. I think there is a differentiation to be made, at least in the way I choose to talk about myself. My brain is not broken and does not need to be fixed overall and there are huge benefits to the way I think and operate, but I also know that there are times when the way my brain works is not beneficial for me at all, times in which I know my body is off or deregulated. I look back on those times and view the way I was as heartbreaking and difficult and I say that I was quite “sick” during those times, because the mental illness was drowning out all of the things I am good at, all of the things I know and love. I don’t have an answer and your post is really interesting to me, I am just thinking about it a lot because for me — there are things to love about my brain, there is a certain amount of it that I will never be able to change — and I don’t like the term mental illness either, but I think — I don’t know, I think there is a certain relief to being able to point to times when you were not your best self and say “I was sick then, I wasn’t myself, I am more than the way I operated during that time.” Does that make any sense? This is a stream of thought so I’m not sure it is clear, but thought it was worth it to share my thoughts.

    • Thank you for sharing — it does make sense. I think what’s hard maybe with mental illness/psychiatric disability is much like anything — there is such a spectrum of experience. For myself and my son, I don’t know if there are times that we are ever without our symptoms. I’m heavily inspired by the neurodiversity movement & autism — they have done an amazing job of clearing a path. When I first learned about neurodiversity, I was like — well, is this ignoring the very real hard times that some people with autism have? That some families experience? But with time I’ve come to see that it’s not either/or, it can be both/and. They own the hard stuff (with the caveat that so much is made harder by the world around us, and I agree) but also own autism. It’s a journey for me & my family, as well, especially around psychiatric disability & the world of mental illness stigma. I don’t have all the answers — but I so appreciate having these conversations.

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