The very first thing I did, on my path to healing, was to stop labeling my brain.
This was a huge shift. Labels had been my crutch for years. I’d been an active and eager participant in finding external reasons why I was the way I was. I’d had 12 labels—diagnoses—placed on my brain over the previous 22 years, and I’d built up something like a personal DSM. Chronic Major Depression. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Social Phobia. PTSD. ADHD. Etc.
One of my first steps, along the lines of separating facts from stories, was to strip my brain of labels. I had such a strong identity as someone living with “mental illness” that it was one of the top two things I knew about myself (the other was that I was “smart”—which I now see as “my brain processes information in a way that our culture values”). The story I told myself was that my brain was broken, malfunctioning, not working the way it was supposed to.
What damaging language to use. Would we ever talk to another person that way?
Besides, what if I was wrong? What if, exactly as it was, my brain was exactly what it was supposed to be? And what if that, in turn, gave me clues about my relationship with the world and how I could most harmoniously live in it?
Peeling the Labels
At first, my goal was simply to observe my mind and its functioning without assigning labels or judgments to it. I chose words that were as vague as possible: “pain” or “uncomfortable” or “sad.” But I didn’t aim for more specific language, because specificity created a story of what had caused that discomfort—and, in turn, the story created greater discomfort than strictly noticing what I was feeling physiologically.
(To be clear, there are times when labeling emotions is extremely helpful, especially for people who aren’t used to identifying what physical sensations are associated with which emotions, or articulating what they’re feeling. I’ve spent a cumulative 20 years in therapy and could, quite possibly, stare at my spine through my navel. This was not my particular issue.)
“Anxiety” became a tight chest, a racing heart or a constricted throat. “Shame” became heat on my chest and face. “Anger” became a tense jaw or an increased sense of adrenalin coursing through my whole body. As I began focusing on the physiological sensations, I noticed that they would pass, if I didn’t keep them alive with thoughts about what was wrong.
As for ADHD, starting in primary school, I’d received report cards saying that “Sarah needs to learn to focus on things she doesn’t necessarily enjoy doing.” (Which always sounded crazy to me). I received the exact same feedback in a professional performance review when I was 40.
Outside the confines of labels and cultural expectations, I realized that maybe, just maybe, if I wasn’t holding focus on something…then that task wasn’t something I should be doing at that moment. I had no trouble focusing—intensely, for hours at a time—on the things that did engage me. I didn’t even notice the time pass.
ADHD became more of a framework than a label. It helped me understand why I had so much difficulty as a child, among other things. But as I began trusting my own body, many of the challenges of ADHD were replaced by gifts.
Trusting the Body
I began following where my energy led, instead of my to-do list, and tasks still got done. Instead of labeling myself a chronic procrastinator, I recognized I was doing what my mind and body needed in order to prepare for the creative work ahead. When I returned to the work at hand, I was able to write more, of a higher quality, in less time. This, in turn, laid the foundation for what I call the “law of increasing flow.”
I took the radical approach of presuming that my body—including my brain—was operating exactly the way it was supposed to in a given moment.
I began listening to my body, too, for guidance of what it needed. A walk. Water. Meditation. Nature. Nature. Sleep. More nature. As I did this, my cravings for unhealthy foods—for any kind of additives, and also (shockingly to me) for chocolate and sugar—fell away. Any kind of sugar except for fruit tasted sickeningly sweet. I stopped biting my nails. Even more amazingly, my lifelong 2-litre-a-day Diet Pepsi habit fell away, to be replaced by… water.
(The sugar cravings now reliably come back every fall and winter and mostly dissipate in the spring and summer. I wish I could say I never went back to biting my nails, buuuut…).
Separating Sensations from Stories
Every time I had a thought, I’d question its validity. I would try to separate the sensations in my body from the stories my mind created around those sensations.
The more stories I released, the less pain I felt. It was far more important for me to feel peaceful than to be “right” in a given situation.
It was clear to me that what Eckhart Tolle calls the Painbody—the accumulated, unprocessed pain of a lifetime—is the shadow side of ego, so I became vigilant about noticing my ego. But learning to see our own ego is a bit like trying to smell our own body odor. It’s tricky.
At that point, I believed that I needed to get rid of the ego entirely in order to feel peaceful. I now know that’s not true—to be free of pain, we need to release identification with the ego—but back then, I felt I needed to annihilate it. (Of course, it was the ego that believed the ego needed to be annihilated.) I didn’t have much work, so observing my thoughts became a full-time job. I walked for hours and hours every day; I sat on a dock and meditated, then sat longer and watched seagulls play with the currents of the wind, or rest on the water. Instinctively, I knew there were life lessons there, even if they weren’t ones our culture valued.
In many ways, I feel today that I was more awake back then. I had to be; I was desperate. Yet today, I’m much more able to name my egoic traits than I was back then (though they still blindside me sometimes, and I still sometimes get caught up in attachment to them—shame—when they do arise).
But also, after I’d gone through the physiological withdrawal from medication (which happened despite careful tapering), and after I’d learned to watch my thoughts, I noticed something: I wasn’t who I’d thought I was.
There was a new self emerging from underneath all those pharmaceuticals. A quiet, introverted person who didn’t really like socializing. Who preferred solitude in nature, or the company of animals.
That bears repeating: My personality had been molded by medication into a person that only bore a passing resemblance to my authentic self.
I also realized that I’d been living “in the grip”—a phrase coined by Isabel Briggs-Myers, which refers to a person being in a situation that forces them to operate in a way that doesn’t feel natural (this often makes people, including me, come across as rude, obnoxious or arrogant).
I hadn’t even recognized that living in a noisy urban environment stressed me out. Many of the functions of my job (being around groups of people, having to navigate social situations) overstimulated and overwhelmed me to the point where I lost all grounding.
There is no doubt in my mind that medication saved my life while I was on it. It put a safety net in the abyss, so that a moment of anxiety didn’t turn into a full-blown panic attack, and a small setback didn’t turn into a month lying in bed. But just as it put a safety net under me, it also blunted my ability to notice my intuition, my body’s wisdom. I wasn’t able to notice the subtle things that were warning flags about, for example, my work situation. I didn’t care! Until I collapsed, and then I did care. And also, I spent a month in bed.
Removing the labels from my brain helped me see myself more clearly. As a species, we have infinite shades of skin and hair tones, infinite body shapes, infinite variations in eye color and functioning. Why would we assume our brains are any different, and that any one neurology is better or worse than another?
Labels can be helpful in identifying repetitive thoughts, (“Oh, here comes fear again” or “That was rejection. Ouch.”). And frameworks, as I’ll write about soon, can be helpful for understanding different perspectives. But I had identified my whole self as “mentally ill” and…that simply wasn’t true. On top of that, the labels prevented me from understanding who I really was.
Similarly, when we remove labels from others—whether we interpret labels as positive or negative—we’re able to see their humanity more clearly. We’re not looking through a filtered lens, but at the person, just as they are in the moment.