MENTAL HEALTH | June 2

You Are Not Your Diagnosis 

Seeing Beyond The Label of My Sister’s Mental Health Struggle 

Ashmi pathela

More Than A Diagnosis

Many people see my sister as someone who struggles with autism, anxiety, and OCD – but that’s not how I view her. I see her through the lens of 24 years of shared experiences and memories.

She was my first best friend. And as kids, life was pretty normal. We’d play outside and make up games, and she was a very happy-go-lucky and outgoing child. She was my sidekick.

I want people to see her in the light that I do, as a full human who has what she struggles with, but also all these gifts and beauty to offer. You may not get that at first glance because she’s initially quiet, but if you really get to know her, her heart is so pure. She’s one of the greatest people I know.

Today, we are so quick to label someone by our first impression of them, or our limited understanding of their diagnosis.

Sometimes, we even start believing those labels ourselves.

All Of Us Struggle

Some of us carry our struggles more visibly on the outside, and others are trapped in their minds – but we all want to feel loved and accepted in this world. It’s not on us to judge someone else based on the struggles they face or label them as someone we cannot relate to, just because they’re different.

Millions of people today are undiagnosed, and depending on the country, you might be generically labeled as crazy. Maybe a lot of us are dealing with something at a high-functioning level, without knowing it. Maybe it’s high-functioning anxiety or depression. Or even high-functioning loneliness.

We’re all just a little crazy, in a good way. It’s part of the human condition.

If you really observe our minds, you’ll see how we get stuck in our thought cycles and insecurities. It would be a nightmare to have to listen to someone chattering like that non-stop,  but we all do. If you had a friend who’d follow you around all day and say the things your mind does when you worry, you’d probably punch them in the face. Would you put up with someone who brings up the same negative thought thousands of times a day?

Each Diagnosis Is Unique

My sister was diagnosed with autism, but she doesn’t really match the stereotype. First of all, there are fewer girls diagnosed with autism than boys. Girls with autism are actually harder to diagnose.

While my sister is high-functioning and very social in many ways, she struggles with severe OCD, anxiety, and anger outbursts. It’s difficult to explain her as “someone with autism” because her struggles are so unique to her.

Yes, she has autism, but her main challenges are severe OCD and anxiety. With autism, her mind just works in a different way, and I don’t see it as something broken that needs to be fixed. If she can better learn how to manage her OCD and anxiety, I believe she can live an independent life. She actually did at one point, when her OCD and anxiety were less debilitating.

Remember that behind every diagnosis, there are hopes, dreams, fears, individual struggles, and beautiful gifts we cannot see at first glance.

No Solution Fits All

Because there’s such a huge spectrum in mental health, and each person’s struggles are unique, it’s a challenge to find one solution that works for across the board. For people dealing with OCD and anxiety, you have to understand where the OCD is coming from. What is the root fear? For my sister, when she doesn’t “give in” to her OCD, she physically feels high anxiety in her chest and fears she will suffocate. She practices calming her breathing and reducing her anxiety when fighting her OCD. Others may fear they’ll get sick from germs. It’s different for everyone.

There are so many stories of methods and treatments that have worked for people: medication and diet, various types of therapy, energy balancing, peer support groups, meditation, and more. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to know what cocktail of solutions will work for you. But with an app like Stigma, we're getting closer. You can now track your thoughts, moods, medications, and behaviors like diet and exercise to see what influences your mental health. You can even connect with people who deal with similar struggles to share advice and see what works for them.

On “Managing” Having A Sibling With Mental Illness

I don’t think I need to learn how to “manage” having a sibling with mental illness. Instead, I need to learn how to be an amazing sister to her. This is because I don’t think of my sister as a “sibling with autism.” It’s more specific; I want to support my sister by understanding her struggles, dreams, and fears that are very individual to her.

Perfect The Way You Are

I think part of the struggle is feeling like you’re not enough, or that you have to get better – otherwise you won’t be happy.

But many things in life are here as a lesson or gift, even though you might not see that now. As easy as it is to feel sorry for ourselves or fear about the future, understand that there are some healings at work here that may not have been if life took another path.

Growing up, I’d see other families who seem “normal” or “happy” and feel envious. At times, I wanted to have a sister I could talk to as a peer and swap advice. But now, I know that our relationship is perfect the way it is.

She’s in my life as my strong and loving sister, just the way she’s meant to be.

We are all beautiful humans. I hope we can learn to love and accept each other just the way we are to make this world a little less lonely.