Labels and Identity: Part One

In recent months the question, “What do you do?” has become a recurring theme.   In our society, “what you do” is equivalent to “who you are.”  On a deeper level, it means, “What is your worth to society?”

Now don’t start:  I know that  even now you are opening your mouth to say:  Oh, no, your worth to society is not dependent upon what you do;  and what you do does not define who you are.  “Who you are” is who you are on the inside, a soul, a PERSON, a LIFE.

Bullshit.  In our society, “what you do” IS “who you are.”  You are a teacher.  A student.  A mother.  A lawyer.  A prisoner.  A doctor.  A patient.  You. Are. A.

10 years ago it was easy for me to answer that question. I was a physician. I was a pediatrician. I had my own pediatric practice. A solo practice, in a small rural mountain community. I was the only pediatrician in three counties. It was a big identity. It was an identity that I was proud to announce, in answer to the question “what do you do?”

I was proud of what I had built. Life had never been easy for me. I dropped out of high school as a teenager, ran away from home, did a lot of drugs, lived on the streets for a while. I never went back to high school.   Instead, I took a battery of tests that qualified me to apply to college. I wrote my way into the University of Chicago, and worked my way through. From 9 PM to 4 AM I cocktail waitressed at a snazzy disco on the Northeast side, and then went to my real job in a microbiology laboratory at the University, where I worked on projects until it was time to go to class at 10 AM.  Between classes I crashed on the couches in the quiet grad school libraries.  There was even a special room called the “Womb Room” that was filled with foam cushions of various sizes and shapes that could be arranged in the perfect configuration for one’s customized nap.  I lived on yogurt and donuts from the myriad campus coffee shops, and the occasional meal bought by a wealthier-than-me friend.  At the end of the day I’d run up to my apartment, shower, change into my work clothes, and take the El north to work.

One day I saw an ad in the school newspaper newspaper soliciting subjects for a study on a new psychoactive drug.  If selected, subjects would receive either the study drug or a placebo, and be paid for their time.   Get paid to take free drugs!  Amazing!  I went right in and applied.

The study was under the auspices of the Department of Psychiatry.  The application process consisted of sitting for a day’s worth of psychological tests, exhaustive and exhausting.  But I marched off afterward, feeling quite confident I’d landed the job, as I’d answered all the questions completely and honestly.

A week later I got a letter from the Department of Psychiatry that said I should call them immediately.  Oh boy, I thought, I’ve got the job!

Not so.  The earnest young man on the other end of the telephone told me that the testing indicated that I was in the clutches of a major depressive episode, and I needed to report to Student Mental Health at once.  He gave me an appointment then and there.

Nuts, I thought.  There go my free drugs and money.  And what is this garbage about major depression?  I didn’t feel any worse than I ever did.  In fact, there had been times in the past when I’d felt far, far worse, and had managed to get through them one way or another.  But now?  I was just going along, doing what I needed to do to get by and do well in college, so that I could go to medical school and be a doctor.

I dutifully showed up at my appointment at Student Mental Health.  A bland, nondescript woman sat behind the desk, radiating benevolence.

“What brings you here today, Laura?”  she beamed.

I told her my story about applying for the job taking drugs and being sent to her instead.  I told her that the young man on the phone said I was having a Major Depressive Episode, but that I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I felt the same as I always felt.

The benevolent lady’s face fell,  suddenly all sympathetic.

“Why, Laura!  You’re attractive!  You’re a straight “A” student!  Why are you depressed?”

I stood up.  “Thank you for your time,” I said, as I made my way out of her office.

That was Psychiatric Label Identity Number One.  But I ignored it.  It was ridiculous.  It didn’t fit.

On the other hand, it might have explained a few things.  Quite a few things.  But the lady behind the desk had been so insipid and without skill, that the opportunity for connecting at least a few of my dots slipped by for that while, and was lost.

I threw that label in the trash, put my shoulder to the wheel, and met my goal.  I finished college, was accepted to medical school, and began my new identity:  Medical Student.

Leave a comment


  1. I am looking forward to the next part. Youre a brilliant writer…Maybe a book:)

  2. D'Alta

     /  October 30, 2011

    Even retired, I can’t escape the question, “What do you do?” Each time I’ve left a job, changed positions, finally retiring, the thing I’ve hated most is giving up my desk, my office, my classroom because each defined my place in the world. Without a workspace, who are we? I wonder…and am sure that there are far more people in the world without a workspace than with one. And for some reason, just setting up a computer in a little nook doesn’t define work or workspace or me.

    Laura, it is so important to tell your story because each of us–or at least a hell of a lot of us–are outliers of some sort. I don’t have bipolar disorder but have suffered through major bouts of depression for as far back as I can remember. Depression was the plague on my house as I grew. Your truth speaks to me. Even more, I know that your truth speaks to many. I feel privileged to read and respond to your writing, your story, your truth. Thank you for the gift that you are giving to others. Thank you for the gift you give to me. Keep writing!!!

    • Dorothy, I can’t express how much your comments mean to me. It’s so important for those of us who suffer and struggle merely to continue to BE, and to have some semblance of a sense of dignity and pride in one’s existence, that we support one another and share. In sharing our struggles, we find that we are not as unique as we perhaps thought, and for me, in my perpetual isolation, that is a comforting thought. Thank you so much for having the courage to share. Laura

  3. Peter Baum

     /  October 30, 2011

    I agree to the book suggestion. Oddly enough, my experience here was reversed. I claimed to be in a major depressive episode, and was told that all was well by everyone. Or as my parents put it; “you have food on the table, a roof over your head, and the government is NOT trying to kill you. So what do you have to be depressed about?”

    • Hello dear Peter, welcome to my personal looney bin, which seems to be populating itself with fellows of the highest quality. Your situation of trying to tell people you were horribly ill and being repulsed because you weren’t in a ghetto or a concentration camp sounds terrifying. It takes so much courage to begin with, to “come out” and tell someone that something is wrong, and then to be slapped down and minimized….well, the more I know of you the greater grows my admiration and respect for you. You are the quintessential “wounded healer.” I’m hoping you will travel right along here and contribute as you feel ready to, because your experiences both in coping with “the disease” and the identity issues that accompany it will be tremendously helpful to our discussion (and, selfishly speaking, to me, as I struggle to understand what has happened to the life I thought I had, and what to do with the one I have awakened in.)

      • D'Alta

         /  November 1, 2011

        Oh Laura, this is the question I ask myself each day, what happened to the life I thought I had and what do I do with the one in which I find myself. What happened to the life I thought my child and grandchildren would have, and what do I do about the one in which the grandchildren find themselves… It is the question that came to me, during my last acupuncture appointment. It has become a safe space of healing for me, working far better than any antidepressant could. Kerry has helped immensely by reminding me that I don’t have to take on others’ issues as my own. However, I find that when their issues collide with me, forcing them onto me, it is so hard to say, “Not my stuff.” I am getting better but struggle between claiming a life of my own and living with obligations to family–holding onto the place of healing and taking care of others, in a healthier way. My internist told me to be grateful that I have time to care for my mother because her mother is no longer alive. “She did it for me. You can do this for her.” I forgive my pcp for her youth and inexperience. My mom could not do it for me because of her own depression and horrible life with my dad. I want to “do it” for my mom because of the hard life she lived with my dad. It’s just not as easy as the Nike mantra…

  4. Hi Laura! I just kind of ran across your blog. This post is absolutely incredible!

    It is upsetting to see that society has turned profession into identity. “What do you do?” For awhile, I had to answer I was a wife and a mother. The tax office listed me as a “homemaker”. I shuttered. And I was determined not to be my mother.

    I worked my way up. Baker. Nanny. Music Teacher. All part-time. People still ask me where I teach in the day. I answer that I care for my son who was recently diagnosed with PDD-NOS in the ASD. (More labels). The other half of that required to make it truth is that I have bipolar disorder. Not, I AM bipolar.

    You’ve inspired me, though. I have been waiting for a proper time to return to school for a graduate degree. I, too, have struggled my way up. But, you’ve shown me that if you want something badly enough, you can do it. I lost faith in that. Thank you.

    I look forward to following you. (I would do it right now, but I’m on a Blackberry).

    • Thank you, Luna, I’m glad you got something to take home from this post. It’s been percolating through the mess called “my life” for a while and finally came bubbling out. I hope you do tackle your life’s dreams and hang on till you get there, then KEEP hanging on. That was my one big mistake: I spent my life getting bucked off of dream horses and getting right back on. That final time I got bucked off, the horse ran away without me, figuratively speaking. In fact, I couldn’t even find the damn horse! So I got left in the dust, clanking around with my big spurs on, till finally I figured out that horse wasn’t coming back and I hung up my spurs. If I knew then what I know now, about my own illness and my former profession, I believe I’d have kept those spurs on and gone looking for another horse just as soon as I was able. But that might just be fantasy, I don’t know. What I DO know is, you’ve only got this one life to work these particular issues out in. So if you’ve got a dream, my dear, you just get on that horse (or boat, or plane, or motorcycle) and go after it! The only thing anybody ever regrets is not living their dream. It always comes down to that.

      • You’re right. We only get this life. Every moment is our moment. I should focus more on making each one count. But, over so many years of struggle, I’ve seemingly lost the chutzpah to take the reins of my own life. Thank you for reminding me that it mine and no one else’s.

  5. Nancy Pace

     /  July 1, 2015

    RE: “If I knew then what I know now, about my own illness and my former profession, I believe I’d have kept those spurs on and gone looking for another horse just as soon as I was able. But that might just be fantasy, I don’t know. What I DO know is, you’ve only got this one life to work these particular issues out in. So if you’ve got a dream, my dear, you just get on that horse (or boat, or plane, or motorcycle) and go after it! The only thing anybody ever regrets is not living their dream. It always comes down to that.” How do I know this isn’t my hypomanic side talking? I dream of lots of things when I’m high, and they all seem close to critically-important, but they all seem to compete in time and energy and money with decisions and commitments and dreams I’ve already made. Maybe “compete” is the operative word here. If I was doing what I really wanted, would more-better-different feel in competition? What I learned from Buddhist thought about my BP judgment is to find “somewhere in the middle” between whatever my particular BP extremes are. How would that affect a decision to “go for it” toward a dream? Choose a reasonable dream? Hmmm. BTW, I don’t expect you to write back often…. Just enjoying your blog from the bottom (beginning) to the top. Now I’m even going back and reading all the comments, which I find just as…useful/beautiful/inspiring/thought-provoking/wise…. If I didn’t already say this, I find you so GENEROUS. Thank you, Laura.

    • Your question is extremely valid. How do we know what’s high inspiration and what’s TOO high? I think the lines are blurred. Kay Jaimeson’s book “Touched With Fire” is full of examples of innovations and advances in every aspect of civilization that were and are brought to us by bipolar people, who live ABOVE the “no, that’s crazy!” zone. It’s a tight wire dance, that’s for sure, but it’s those of us who refuse to take “no, human beings are not meant to fly” for an answer, who will crash over and over until finally one day at Kitty Hawk…

      Yes, I have built some large and wonderful edifices in my field, and they stand, but without me. If I had not had the drive and energy and vision of BP, they would not have been birthed into the world, but would have remained as dreams. As Mordechai said to Esther (in the Book of Esther), “If you don’t do this thing, someone else will do it, and your family’s name will not be built upon it.”

      Not that I have ever put my name on anything I have done. But the point here is that if you don’t at least make an effort to fulfill your dreams, you’ll be forever looking at someone who did, and then have to deal with that sadness of not having followed yours.

      The one thing I DO regret is that I was not medicated during the times when I was building my big dreams, so of course I went overboard AND got involved with unhealthy people, and the people were the dream-killers. Besides that, I neglected my family, and I regret that very much. I would do it differently if I had it to do over, certainly.


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