A Case of Mistaken Identity

Tim Jackson —  September 10, 2012 — 9 Comments

As a counselor, I work within a system that often places a diagnosis label on an individual’s struggles. I frequently hear comments like: “I am a borderline.” “He’s bipolar.” “I’m ADHD.” “I’m an abuse victim.” “I’m an alcoholic.” “She’s OCD.” It’s crazy—not an official diagnosis :-)—to take on a diagnosis as the primary identifier of one’s personhood. I want to scream, “No, you’re not!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like codes that unlock doors or allow me access to my computer. A diagnosis can be helpful. I have a little handheld gizmo that I plug into my vehicles that spits out a code, giving me a diagnosis of why the “check engine” light appears on my dash. The code is helpful so that I can determine if this is something minor that I can fix or if it’s a more complex problem that I need to have my mechanic repair.

Fundamentally, the problem is that while there is some truth contained in a diagnosis, a diagnosis doesn’t equal identity. That’s not who we are at the core. But it does describe how we struggle. And there’s a huge difference.

People are not vehicles. We’re not mechanical. We’re personal, living, breathing, feeling, longing, purposeful beings who are made in the image of the invisible God of the universe (Gen. 1:26-27).

Image-bearers. So what difference does that make in real life?

It means the person who was my 4:00 p.m. appointment yesterday isn’t a number, a diagnosis, or a case. She’s a person with a name and a story uniquely all her own. She should never be reduced to a diagnosis code. Yes, she struggles with a particular collection of symptoms that has been given a name, but that diagnostic category is not her name. It’s not her identity. She, like me and you, is a complex conglomeration of inherited tendencies and learned responses that have shaped her story. But underlying everything is her identity as a daughter of Eve who bears the image of the invisible God is at the core of her being.

Knowing that changes the way I see people. I focus more on caring for an individual’s heart, for who he or she really is, and focus less on treating only symptoms or merely correcting aberrant behaviors.

What we all need to remember is that we are not our struggles. Yes, we all do struggle and our struggles are colored by our stories. But we are not defined by our struggles. I know that’s especially hard to remember when we’re feeling overwhelmed in the middle of our pain.

So let’s help each other to remember this: You and me and everyone else we will encounter today is not a diagnosis, a customer number, or the patient in room 201. Each one of us uniquely reflects the image of God. It doesn’t even matter if we believe in Him or not, we all still bear the label of our divine Tailor—made in His image—and are worthy of love and respect. Remember that, and it will change how you see yourself and the rest of the world around you.




Tim Jackson

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Tim Jackson is married to his college sweetheart, Cole. They have 3 adult children. Tim is the producer for the HelpForMyLife.org website, writes Discover Series booklets on a variety of counseling issues and hosts webinars for RBC Ministries. He's also the founder and president of Still Waters Counseling & Equipping Ministries, PC, a local counseling practice serving individuals, couples and families. When not in the office, you will probably find him up a tree with a bow, in a duck blind or fly fishing on one of Michigan's many rivers.

9 responses to A Case of Mistaken Identity

  1. I appreciate what you have said, but speaking as someone who suffers from one of the mental illnesses you’ve mentioned above, I can’t say I agree.

    The more I go on, the more I see myself and think of myself as someone who is ‘second class’ or ‘defective’ because of my condition. I definitely have an identity problem too. I really don’t see any way out of it.

    How I feel I am is how I am and my feelings are completely messed up and distorted. That’s how I see myself. Unless you live in this world it pretty much is impossible to explain it. Having faith inspite of all of this isn’t really helping me, unfortunately.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for reading and responding to the blog. But I’m not sure we disagree. You admit that your feelings are “completely messed up and distorted” and because of those feelings you see/think of yourself as “defective” or a “second class” person. That’s exactly my point. Feelings can distort reality. The fact is that God doesn’t see you as a second class person who is defective. Instead He sees you for who you really are–worthy of love and respect because you are made in His image. That’s reality! Yes, you have unique struggles that have complicated your life. But you are not defined by them, unless you let them define you.

    Finally, maybe what you’ve misunderstood or thought you heard me say was that faith is the remedy that eliminates our struggles in life. (And you’re not alone there–lots of people have mistakenly believed and have been taught that.) No, I don’t think that’s true. Faith doesn’t make life easy by eliminating all our struggles. Faith gives us hope to persevere, to hang in there and to grow stronger through our struggles so that they don’t define us. (Rom. 5:1-5).

    I hope this helps clarify what I was trying to say. Thanks.

  3. As someone on both sides, I have worked within the field of social work for 15 years and I also struggle with depression and anxiety, I can understand where anonymous is coming from. I also totally agree with you Tim on your original post. I refuse to be defined by my earthly struggles, even before I was a conscious christian, I felt this way. In my work as a social worker, I often have encouraged individuals to be conscious of how they speak about their personal struggles and encourage them NOT to own it! That their afflictions or situations are not who they are. I firmly believe in the power of positive thinking, or the fact that what we speak get internalized and often we aren’t even aware of it. In the depths of my own despair, whenever a depressive episode hits, I try to approach it this way. It’s not who I am, I am more than this. I am not ‘a depressive’, I’m a child of God! Like you, I often have clients who refer to themselves as their diagnosis. “I’m Bipolar”, “I’m Borderline”….I always correct them, if appropriate, and tell them “no, that’s not who you are, it doesn’t have to be WHO you are”. It’s what you struggle with, but not who you are. Sometimes, they look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language, like thinking about it in that light is something they’ve never heard before. Maybe they haven’t, as I’ve often heard clinicians refer to patients like this as well directly to them. Sad. Sometimes I think people find their worth in their diagnosis, that without it they don’t know who they are. Even more sad.
    I’m thankful you’re out there helping people from this perspective. Peace and blessings to you.

  4. Eileen, Thanks for sharing your perspective as one who works in the helping professions and who also struggles with depression but sees herself as so much more . . . and you are! We’re all on a journey through struggles of one kind or another. Journeying well is where we need to focus.

  5. Well, maybe that is the case. Perhaps I have allowed my mental illness to define me. What can I say? Pray for me. I certainly could use it.

    I’m hard on myself. Probably too much so. I don’t have a lot of hope left. Again, that is my fault. I don’t blame anybody for anything but myself. I am the big problem here.

    I just don’t think one can really understand the torture and anguish that the mentally ill have to deal with if they aren’t mentally ill (and the mentally ill have to try to appear ‘normal’ on top of that so that they’re not completely cast out by society).

    I don’t pretend to know how it would feel to be paralyzed or in a wheelchair and so I don’t pontificate on that. And so, it just frustrates me when people (and I’m not saying you’re one of them – you’re not) seem to think they understand what it must feel like to have a disintegrating mind – when it’s clear they don’t have any idea how that it is at all. If you don’t have your mind what in the world do you have? It’s horrible.

    The Bible doesn’t really address mental illness unless you’re of the school of thought that I need a demon cast out of me. Hey, anything is possible at this point and so I won’t rule that out. But, I think that silence is why I feel kind of left out in the cold, so to speak. I don’t give myself great odds for the future but I guess as long as I’m still alive, there is some hope.

  6. Anonymous,

    You’re not alone. And thanks for the vote of confidence that we’re not “one of them.” We never want to be guilty of “pontificating.” So, here’s the deal: if you find that we are at some point failing in that regard, call us on it. Let us know. That’s the only way we can respectfully keep one another in check and focused on the most important things. You’re help in that regard is greatly appreciated. I’m writing another post on excuses and identity that I’d love to hear your thoughts on.

  7. I come from a culture where anything other than illness of the body is considered laziness. One is only allowed some leeway if one is so mentally disturbed than rational action is no longer possible.
    I have been suffering from depression for a long time and it is a comfort to give the “disease” a name because then I feel like I’m not fundamentally defective. Giving it a name makes me feel like I can get over it just as with proper medication, I can recover from most other illnesses.
    However, I think our generation is always too quick to label every quirk as a mental illness. And the diagnoses are delivered with such a sense of hopelessness and finality that most people believe they can never get better. I also believe if we do label every quirky behavior, every individual will end up being typed as a mentally ill person because I think everyone has some “not-so-normal” attributes.

  8. I really appreciate the way you defined faith, “Faith doesn’t make life easy by eliminating all our struggles. Faith gives us hope to persevere, to hang in there and to grow stronger through our struggles so that they don’t define us. (Rom. 5:1-5).” Tim Jackson
    September 11, 2012 at 10:22 am

    I don’t believe I have ever heard it described so beautifully.

    I can completely understand where Anonymous is coming from; the despair from the mental illness. And that’s only a portion of it. Add guilt, condemnation and shame for having the mental illness!! And the crying and screaming out to God (for years upon years) to take it away and wondering why He doesn’t or what I ever did to deserve it to begin with.

    There’s also the tedious continual task of leading family and friends (if you can manage to hang onto friends through it all) to believe that you are normal. You have to do this if you want to keep anyone in your life.

    Sounds horrible, but not only is it true, it is but a sampling. For those who do not suffer, praise and thank God and pray for us who do.

    For those who do suffer, know that you are not alone. I can’t say why we carry such a burden, but I can say there is something truly great and wonderful waiting. The best we can do is to stay in the Word. And to give the best we can give to help others.

  9. Toria,
    Thanks for sharing. It’s a constant battle to trust that God is in this when the battle is so relentless. Your words are encouraging to many who share your struggles.

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