On Sunday, when my sister was home for Mothers’ Day, we had a disagreement about the fact I refer to myself as “broken” because of my physical health problems and “mental” or “crazy” on days when I’m feeling particularly frustrated with my mental health problems.
Her reasoning was that by using these somewhat derogatory terms, I was being defeatist, and suggesting I didn’t think I was going to get better. Moreover, by calling myself broken and mental, I was reinforcing an idea that I couldn’t do something, that I wasn’t able to improve or achieve what I wanted to achieve, and that generally it was a negative approach to take.
My argument was that by reclaiming terms like this I’m ensuring that they can’t be used against me, and that by accepting my brokenness I was giving myself permission to fail at things I used to be able to do. Like using the word ‘queer’ as a descriptor instead of an insult, my use of these words was about turning aspects of my identity that could be seen as negative into things I’d embraced.
She then pointed out that however much I think I’m reclaiming a term, there’s a difference between a term like “queer” that was often misused and a word like “broken” that is fundamentally a bad thing.
I said I’d rather be broken than disabled, because things that are broken still have a chance to be fixed.
The discussion went on for some time.
It got me thinking about these words I use for myself. There’s a certain sense of relief in saying to myself, “I felt crazy today. But maybe I’ll be not crazy tomorrow.” It’s a lot easier to accept my failure to live up to my fifteen-year-old self’s expectations if I say, “Well, I wasn’t broken when I planned that.” Instead of constantly trying to do as much as I did before I injured my wrists nearly three years ago, it’s a word that allows me to step back and admit defeat.
Maybe it is defeatist. Maybe because it has to be.
Since I first hurt my wrists I maintained a belief that I’d get better. It was two weeks before I was due to take my grade eight violin; originally, we hoped I’d be able to take it at Christmas, or at least Easter. I still can’t really play the violin, a fact that gets more difficult every day. I didn’t care that much at the time but now, as this coping mechanism / hobby seems even further out of reach, I do care. I care a lot.
Because I thought I was going to be better in a few months, or maybe a year, or maybe two years, it was easy to resist seeking alternatives to using my hands, or planning for long-term difficulties. And the number of times I’ve written in my journal what if I never get better? shows exactly how damaging that mindset was. Working on the basis that I’d get better only worked while I still believed it. Once I stopped, it just became overwhelming.
Maybe I will get better. Certainly my goal with these months away from university is to get ‘not-crazy’ so that I can deal with Cambridge’s own brand of mental, and to get stronger so that my wrists can stand up to the workload. But I can’t work on that assumption. While I maintain a belief that this is only temporary, I’m still expecting things from my body that it can’t actually do.
Probably, my sister is right that calling myself ‘broken’ and ‘mental’ and ‘crazy’ isn’t the best attitude to take. It isn’t the road to positive thinking, it isn’t a form of self-love, and it definitely isn’t about making the best of a bad situation. But over the last few months, it’s been necessary. It gives me permission to be crazy. It gives me permission to feel broken.
And that’s the kind of self-love I’ve found the most difficult. I’m a perfectionist, and I have an all-or-nothing approach to life. If I’m not writing every day, I get mad at myself, but by acknowledging the major weaknesses I have, I’m saying that it’s okay. I didn’t write much in the past year because I’m crazy. I can’t get words on paper because I’m mental. I was too tired to blog much that month because I’m broken. It’s okay. No one expects me to, when I’m broken.
It isn’t an attitude I can maintain for a long time. I know that eventually it will stand in the way of my recovery, because I’ll sink into a pit of “I can’t do it”. But at the moment it’s not “I can’t”, it’s “I can’t and that’s okay”. A subtle difference, maybe, and no doubt I’ll find it hard to recognise when that changes and will need help regaining a positive attitude.
But for now, reclaiming my brokenness is about giving myself permission to fail. It makes it okay that I’ve had to take time out of uni and that it’ll take me longer to graduate. It makes it okay that I didn’t get up until 3pm today and stayed in pyjamas all day. It makes it okay that I haven’t met the writing goals I keep setting for myself.
And I guess in the end that’s why I do it. When I say that I’m calling myself ‘broken’ so that other people can’t, it’s not that I think they will. If I knew people who would treat me like that, I’d cut them out of my life for being horrible. But I know that I’ll start using it against myself unless I acknowledge and embrace the label for as long as it might be true.
One day, with working hands and non-dodgy wrists, maybe I’ll look back at my twenty-year-old self and realise that she was wrong. But for now, this is what makes sense to me, and this is what helps me.
I’m broken. I’m crazy. Those are facts of my life right now. They won’t be true forever and I’m doing my best to make them less true now, but right at this minute they’re something I need to acknowledge and to accept, even if outsiders don’t necessarily understand my way of doing it.