Trigger warning: suicide attempt, death

Coming out of the rabbit hole is not easy. It involves motivation, patience, a touch of creativity and one rule: don’t let the Queen of Hearts take your head.

I tell my experiences with mental health as metaphors because experiences are beyond the limits of our language. I identify with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because the timing of the recent adaptation coincided with a major transition in my life. I was leaving my hometown to pursue post-secondary education. I was going to a new environment—one that would provide the structure to let me thrive.

I did not want to go.

I had a small network of therapists, psychiatrists and medical doctors I knew I would lose if I moved away. Steeped in the language of psychiatry, I was convinced that my death would be under my control – a suicide attempt that I couldn’t survive. The aura of hopelessness that the language provided made recovery seem impossible and distress inescapable. I did not think I would live beyond my twenty-fifth birthday.

Almost two years after entering University, I was in recovery. Over my recovery, I have adopted another metaphor: The Matrix. I have chosen to take the red pill by reducing psychotropic medications to a minimum and shedding the language of psychiatry. This is not an easy transition, but I am already reaping the rewards.

With my own language, I can advocate for my needs and learn to live with quirks that people called “disorder.” It is organized chaos, thank you very much.

Along this 13-year journey, I was plastered with labels like “generalized anxiety disorder,” “depression with psychotic features,” “borderline personality disorder,” and, most recently, “schizoaffective disorder.”  Though I cannot think of myself as having these labels today, they will stick with me for the rest of my life, shrouding the beauty of my inner world.

I have experienced more stigma in recovery than while I was suffering under these labels. If I express any distress, people – especially medical professionals – start to question my recovery. While it is optional to talk to acquaintances about my stresses, it is required to talk, and be judged by, a professional stranger. This stigma is amplified when they know I am on a medication diet.

The language of psychiatry spreads with the biomedical model – the view that mental health conditions are caused by abnormalities in the brain. I fear that this stigma I experience will become more widespread. It does not matter if the finger of blame is pointed at my actions, my mind, or my brain – if the language that surrounds these labels (e.g., “deficit,” “faulty wiring,” “inflexible”) does not change, we all suffer.

Katie Kilroy-Marac, an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, also fears that a strict biomedical approach can ignore our experiences and how we can grow from them.

But Kilroy-Marac says this language may help some narrate their experiences.

“For people dealing with mental health issues, a diagnosis… can be a key step in feeling better,” Kilroy-Marac said.

Culture has sway on the language surrounding psychiatric labels. The way we think about the brain may reflect how we cope with imperfections within it.

Kilroy-Marac noted that if we thought of the brain as a garden, we may be more likely to think about self-care and healing than our current thinking of the brain as a computer.

“With the computer metaphor, we have ideas about switches, overloads, wiring, and fixes,” she said.

I have faith that psychiatry can co-exist with other languages and explanations of mental health. The key term, of course, is co-exist. If psychiatry can remember that they are the servants of the people in distress, and listen to them without the biomedical filter, then I have hope that incidences of recovery will outpace the number of people diagnosed with mental health conditions.

With the introduction and acceptance of mindfulness (a philosophy associated with Asian-area religions) as a therapy, psychiatrists are moving in this direction.

Unlike the 2010 movie adaptation, Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not show Alice coming out of the rabbit hole. She simply wakes up.

As I explore the wonders of language, society, behaviour, and health, I now know what to do if I wander too far or get too distressed. I simply need to wake up and connect with the outside environment.