One Thousand Questions

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we feel a need to put labels on people – we name their diseases, their disorders.  A woman could be “the cancer in Room 212”.  Is she not so much more than her cancer? What about the diagnosis “dementia”?  When we see a newborn baby do we think “This child has no muscle control.  He can’t walk, he can’t speak.  This is a very handicapped child.”  Of course not.  But we see an elderly woman who needs a walker, whose hand trembles, and we call her disabled.  Maybe her memory is fading.  Are we seeing someone with dementia, or one of the natural progressions that we all make from birth towards death?  Our quality of humanness throughout our lives is always a matter of degree – some of us are very good at sports, or writing; some of us find dancing awkward, or stutter if we have to speak in public.  There is probably not one of us who does not have difficulty in one area, or many.

When I was about twenty I was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Did I have schizophrenia?  Probably not.  Labels change their meaning over the years – they go in and out of fashion.  But what does it mean if one does have schizophrenia?   You could think of schizophrenia as an impediment, or as an unusual perceptiveness.  In some cultures people with visions are revered as specially gifted.  My diagnosis was later changed to bipolar.  Am I bipolar?  Probably not.  But what if I was, what would that mean?  I think it would depend on how I lived bipolarity (?).  Would it set me apart from others or would it enable me to show others a different way of seeing this world?  I could use my creative energy productively, or I could allow it to overwhelm me.  Could I be bipolar some of the time, and “normal” some of the time?  What if some of us were diagnosed with Normality?  In my case, bipolar has now been cast aside to make room for more complicated diagnoses.  But do I have an illness or am I a person who grieved deeply, who feels emotions very deeply?

A teen-aged girl might be labelled “a cutter”.  Because we don’t understand, we judge her as somehow failing.  But could we see a young person deeply in pain, who cuts herself to help her escape that pain for a short while?  And why does a label define a whole person?  I know a woman with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety who injured her hand in a workplace accident.  The doctor and nurse were talking near her bed in the emergency department.  “Oh, that’s only so-and-so.  No hurry there.”  Not only do we label people but we give their labels a value.  A person with cancer has a high value, a heroic value.  A person with fibromyalgia might be given a low value, perhaps these mystery disorders are labelled as bogus, as “all in her head”.  But many illnesses are all in our heads.  Are some legitimate, some not?  If we refer to a person as handicapped are we not saying that somehow they have less value, because they are not perfect?  What if that “handicapped” person has special gifts that most of us do not?  I have seen persons diagnosed with dementia who are eager to learn new things, even with difficulty, who are skilled musicians, who care for other people in a special way.  What if we took everyone’s label, put all the labels into a box, shook them up, redistributed them.  What would that mean?  Would everyone be the same person, or a different person?  Except for the label, did anything change?