Your Illness Does Not Define You

Your strength and courage do

I work on an acute assessment ward as a psychiatric nurse. In my profession, I nurse individuals that are experiencing a broad spectrum of mental health issues.

I have a lived experience of mental health issues. This is not a mandatory requirement for graduating as a psychiatric nurse, but it helps.

I never feel the need to disclose my lived experience to patients. I may occasionally allude to it, but never full disclosure.

It is not because of any perceived stigma. It is not about the fear of revealing one’s insecurities. Nor is it the fear of disclosing to a patient that they are being nursed by someone who lives with depression and they themselves may question my own clinical competence. It is none of these.

I never self disclose because my lived experience benefits my clinical practice in a different way. It strengthens my empathy and it deepens my understanding of the self-reported accounts of the struggles of others. I can relate much easier to such individuals than I ever could prior to experiencing depression myself. I can provide analogies for their attempts to describe how they feel when they appear to find it difficult to find the right words.

Now, this benefit due to my lived experience isn’t a one-way street. This story is not a self-righteous, self-indulgent anecdote of how I help people with mental health issues supposedly better because I myself also live with a mental health condition. There are many doctors and nurses out there that have a lived experience of mental health issues. I am no different from anyone else that lives with a mental health condition.

Many of the conversations I have with patients are beneficial for my own mental health. Many of them have incredibly inspiring stories. Many of them have accounts of how they have overcome extreme adversities and are still finding the strength to carry on.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going”

Winston Churchill

I will very often take home a conversation I have with a patient and reflect on it. I would like to share the latest one that I took home.

This particular patient has substance addiction issues amongst other mental health afflictions. Just the other day this patient asked me the following question. “How do you do it, man? How do you not drink every day? How do you not do drugs every day? How do you get your kicks?”

My initial response was the following. “I get my kicks from elsewhere.” Then the conversation got cut short for some reason. That was the last conversation I had with that patient that day.

Several days later I was back at work and talking to the same patient. I took the conversation back to their question from several days ago.

“That question of yours made me think,” I said.

“What do you mean?” They replied.

“Well, when you first asked me that question I thought to myself what kind of question is that? But then I was thinking about it on the way home and I came to the realisation that you asked a very valid and thought-provoking question” I explained.

The patient looked surprised at my comment.

The patient wouldn’t know this, but I have hit rock bottom before. I have struggled to get out of bed on dark days. I have struggled with alcohol dependency. During the darkest episodes of my depression, I had plans to end my life. His question prompted me to reflect on these dark days of mine.

Of course, as discussed above, there was no reason for any self-disclosure. I carried on the conversation.

“You, like me, like anyone else, require a short term and a long term purpose. You asked me, what do I do for kicks. I play my drums, I write a lot, I walk my dogs, I ride through the forest on my mountain bike like a crazy fool. And at the weekends I may have a drink but in moderation. That’s how I do it.”

The patient nodded and appeared to be processing what I had just said.

“Moderation is the magic word.” The patient stated while nodding their head, clearly alluding to their substance addiction.

We talked some more about the importance of and need for a short and long term purpose in life. This was certainly no lecture from me to the patient. It was a dialogue, a two-way conversation.

On the way home that day I reflected on this second conversation. This patient made me reflect on and ultimately appreciate the support and love I have around me and how privileged I am in life compared to others.

I found those two conversations that took place over a couple of days a profoundly humbling experience.

To the patient that humbled me who is no longer under my care, given the opportunity I would tell them the following:

“Your illness does not define you. Your strength and courage do”


Originally published in Medium publication ‘Invisible Illness‘ 12/04/19

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