I’m living with bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. I share my experiences with mental illness openly on my blog and social networks. In the beginning it was a nice way to spread awareness and show people like me that they are not alone. It felt necessary. Over the years it has turned into something else entirely…
I come from derogatory whispers
Growing up I didn’t understand mental illness. I come from a small town in Kentucky (USA) and mental illness was a seriously taboo subject. The “mentally ill” were spoken about with whispers in a derogatory manner. I love where I come from but there was a severe lack of mental health awareness. It fueled a lot of unnecessary stigma and many misconceptions about mental illness. It failed me in many ways.
I didn’t receive my diagnosis until I was in my late 20’s. Sometimes I find myself grieving the years I lost because I couldn’t properly understand myself or what was happening with my mind. I often look back on college and high school with tears in my eyes. I think about how I struggled and failed at making connections with other people, how I was alone for so long, and how I hated myself for things I couldn’t understand. So much started making sense once I understood my diagnosis. A few years later I started blogging about mental illness and I quickly realized that there a many people out there just like me.
In the beginning I started blogging about mental illness for simple reasons. Now I feel a responsibility to continue because I know what it’s like to not understand your own mind. I know what it’s like to feel completely lost and alone. I know how isolating and debilitating that can be. So now I share in hopes that my words will find those people. I also share because many people tell me I shouldn’t…
They whisper so I need to scream
To be honest, I’m terrified to share this. But it needs to be shared. Many people tell me to quit talking about mental illness. Many well-intended people call me, send me messages, and approach me in public to voice their concerns. They always use hushed and embarrassed voices and pressure me with concerns about “what people might think” or “how talking about mental illness will harm my future”. These people urge me to stop talking about mental illness. Some even tell me to delete it all and post a retraction.
Many of their statements are “people will think type-statements” based completely on how other people will perceive me and the information I disclose. To be completely honest, those people are one of the reasons I’m sharing. I’m sharing to change their minds. I refuse to stop sharing because the opportunity to change their mind outweighs their opinion of me. They can whisper about me all they want. I will continue to scream about mental illness. Maybe I’ll change their minds. (Metaphorically “scream”, of course.)
Reasons I should stop talking about mental illness
I want to share five of the things people have said to me. All five of these things have been said to me in the last 100 days. All by well-intended and misinformed people who want me to quit talking about mental illness. I’m also including what I think of each statement.
“That’s not the way a doctor’s wife should behave. People will think he’s not a good husband or doctor if you tell people that you’re mentally ill.”
Mental illness doesn’t care who you are, how big your house is, or who you are married to. Mental illness is impervious to all of it. I’m a doctor’s wife who is living with bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. I struggle with depression. I battle with anxiety. What my husband does for a living is irrelevant to my diagnosis. I actually feel more of a responsibility to share because of my husband’s profession. Mental illness doesn’t care who my husband is. It’s important that people realize that. Absolutely anyone can be impacted by mental illness. Additionally, my husband is wonderful. He supports my mental health advocacy. As a doctor and a husband, he knows that mental health stigma is harmful to me and his patients. He understands the importance of what I’m doing. Absolutely anyone can be impacted by mental illness.
“You’ll never be trusted to do important things if people think you’re mentally ill.”
Some people assume that individuals living with mental illness are lazy and unreliable. We are told to keep our mental illness a secret because we won’t be hired for jobs or trusted to complete important projects. I’m given this advice constantly. I’ve been told to withhold my mental illness while assisting with community activities, church activities, dinner parties, and family events. But I refuse to withhold this important part of myself. I want others to realize that I’m living with a mental illness and I can absolutely accomplish things. People’s trust in me shouldn’t waver because I disclose my mental illness. When I succeed I’m helping to break down stigma and misconceptions about mental illness. I’m proving that people with mental illness can accomplish things. If I keep my mental illness a secret I’m risking a huge loss – I’m forfeiting my opportunity to end stigma. I want to prove people wrong.
“How are you gonna feel when your children read this someday?”
I hear this a lot. I’m told to keep my mental illness a secret from my metaphorical children. I’m told that my metaphorical children will be embarrassed by my candidness. I’m told that my children won’t trust me as a mother because of my bipolar disorder. None of this is true. If I’m lucky enough to have children, I fully intend to teach them about mental illness just as I will teach them about many other things. I will teach them that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. This is how we make society better. This is how we break stigma and end misconceptions. We work to make the next generation better than the generations before them. It’s hard work but it’s work worth doing. I won’t allow my children to fall victim to the same stigmas that held me back.
“You’ll lose all your friends if you keep posting about being bipolar. No one wants to be seen with a crazy person.”
First, if someone doesn’t want to be my friend because I talk about mental illness then I’m sincerely better off without them. Second, this is an atrocious thing to say. This implies that I should hide a significant part of myself and create a fake facade in the name of friendship. That’s not how friendship works. If I hid my diagnosis from my friends, I would be depriving myself of valuable mental health support. Also, calling me a “crazy person” because I have bipolar disorder is horrible. I’m not “crazy” I’m simply living with a disorder. I deserve friends that know my diagnosis, respect it, and love me for who I am. We all do. I refuse to hide my diagnosis. I’m not ashamed of who I am. [Friendship is important, so I wrote a follow-up post dedicated to this topic, check it out; Bipolar Disorder and Friendship.]
“Don’t talk about mental illness. People will think you are attention seeking.”
When used in this fashion, the phrase “attention seeking” truly frustrates me. The phrase “attention seeking” is often used condescendingly as a way to dismiss mental health concerns. When I talk about my experiences with mental illness I’m not seeking attention. I’m simply trying to spread awareness and help others. I’m taking up space in the world. I deserve that. We all do. It isn’t “attention seeking”, it’s respecting mental health. Many people talk about their mental illness as a way to heal; poetry, art, music… it’s all wonderful self-expression. Also, what if someone is talking about mental illness because they need help and attention? Their outreached hand shouldn’t be met with condescension. Be a good person and guide them towards help. If nothing else, kindly give them the contact information for a free crisis text line.
You are not alone
Conversations about mental illness are becoming more normalized. But there are still plenty of misconceptions and unfair stigmas attached to mental illness. Don’t let those stigmas get the best of you. I came from a place where those stigmas were strong. Those stigmas originated and grew from a lack of awareness and understanding. This happens in many places. But minds change, people grow, and you are strong.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m still figuring it out myself. But I want you to try. If you are struggling, it’s okay to reach out and ask for help. Text or call a free helpline. Go to the doctor. Go to therapy. I know that getting an appointment might take time and energy that we don’t always have. I also know that not everyone has access to proper and affordable care. I’m sorry. But please keep trying. You are worth it. You are spectacular. You are not alone.
I’ll keep sharing
Like I said, I didn’t realize that mental health advocacy would become a permanent thing for me or that my blog would become a safe place for conversations about mental illness. It was all unintentional but I’m overwhelmingly glad that it happened. Now I feel a responsibility to continue sharing. I know what it’s like to feel completely lost and alone. I know what it’s like to be misunderstood. I know how isolating and debilitating that can be. I will continue sharing in hopes that my words find people like me. I want you to know that you are not alone. I also hope that my words find people who don’t understand. Maybe my words can help them understand mental illness. Hopefully.
You are not alone.