Categories AdvocacyIssuesMental Illness

Living without a clear diagnosis

It’s funny how sometimes a label that we place on ourselves can trap us and hold us back. This was my experience with getting a clear diagnosis.

Living with bipolar ii – without knowing that was the problem

Living without a clear diagnosis

I have had mental illness in earnest since my teens. I am just shy of 30 years old, and I have been searching for my diagnosis for a long time. Initially the illness manifested itself as depression, then anxiety and OCD-like symptoms, and then a cacophony of paranoia, grandiosity, and derealization.

But, I was never given a clear diagnosis, or the “label” I could put on myself. Sometimes I was told I had depression, sometimes anxiety. Other times it was OCD, or other times a mood disorder not otherwise specified.

I often agonized over what my true diagnosis was. I thought that if I could give a name to the problem, I could face it and attack it full-on, thus accelerating and strengthening my healing and recovery.

The fact was that I was never really given a clear diagnosis. My agony shifted into indifference after years of struggling to pin myself down. I mean, what did it matter? I was screwed regardless and I just had to keep living. The symptoms didn’t make sense when put in a broader picture. My medication list was all over the place. In addition, I was too blind and in-the-illness to step back and see things with a perspective that would have provided me the clarity I wished for.

But, that indifference and frustration passed, too. I soon realized that I didn’t need a diagnosis to heal.

Did I really need a clear diagnosis?

I am a person who is hyper organized, and so I seem to put everything in its own “box”. I think my support network realized that if I was given a diagnosis, I would wall myself in a box of it and not think of life in broader terms. Maybe that is why they weren’t as frustrated as I was. Or, maybe they were just as frustrated as me, but didn’t let it show.

Regardless, here is the true wisdom I attained after all these years: a diagnosis, while helpful, is a box whether you put yourself in it or not. Life is too broad, and one’s health is too complex to define yourself by boxes. Instead of fitting one’s life into a box, or fitting a box over one’s life, let life happen. The things you encounter medically are just part of you and your health, and making things into a box doesn’t tell the truth about who you are.

You are much more than a diagnosis, and in fact you are outside, above, separate from, and unrelated to the box and its constraints. The box of a diagnosis is just a label that humans put on things to make some sort of sense of things going on with one’s health. You are separate from that label. You are not your illness, and your illness is not you.

A side note –

I don’t intend to devalue medicine–in fact, I am a very strong advocate for medication and therapy combined. I believe immensely in the power of medicine and how it is making our world a better place. What I am rejecting is the idea that putting a label on yourself, or defining your experiences through a label, makes your life inherently more fulfilling. On the contrary, it can lead to more suffering because you do not see yourself as a human being outside of a box, label, or diagnosis.

A clear diagnosis at last?

I recently started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a new therapist, because I wanted to go back to therapy to address my depression. Well, what do you know? It turns out I was bipolar all along. Yes, I finally have a clear diagnosis. I can use that diagnosis to gain insight into what my disease may bring my way. But, did having a diagnosis really change anything for me? Not really. I have been navigating this for so many years that I can separate my symptoms from myself, and I can cope without obsessing over a label.

Do I feel more at peace now? Yes, but mainly because I was okay without a diagnosis, and having one is an added tool in my toolbox. But, it is not my toolbox entirely.

Don’t worry if you can’t get a clear diagnosis. It just means you’re human like the rest of us. You don’t need a label to survive and thrive. You have the power within yourself to get a support network, get medical care, and take care of yourself. You’ve got this, in other words. Don’t let anyone put you in a box regardless of the circumstances, medical or not. That is a lesson I learned, but one that I wished I had learned sooner.

Happy weekend,


Want to try practicing your gratitude? Try the gratitude journal Thankfulness Etudes.

Don’t forget to take a listen to Searching for Now.

Tagged Tagged CBT, diagnosis, medicine, mental health, , therapy