Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why I Talk About My Mental Illness

I talk about my mental illness a fair bit in the course of my blogging, and I get a lot of different responses to that. There are some people who find it upsetting or too much to deal with, and they stop reading. Which is fair enough. There are a lot of people who've contacted me with variations on the theme of "me too!" and that always delights me. Feeling like I was the only one who thought the way I did was one of the most upsetting parts of coming to terms with having a mental illness for me, so if I can help someone else to understand it's not just them, it's never just them, then I'm absolutely thrilled. But I also get a lot of comments along the lines of how "brave" I am for talking about it, and asking how I deal with the vulnerability of opening up such an internal, personal part of myself. I've been meaning to answer this question properly for a while, so here it is;

If I don't talk, other people fill the silence with their assumptions.

I thought no-one else was like me, because for a long time I didn't hear anyone else talking about it, so I filled the silence with my assumption. Once I started hearing other people talk, and hearing other people say things that I felt, I realised my assumption was wrong. But without that input, I never would have realised. And understanding that I'm not alone has been a fundamental part of my ability to deal with being crazy, to keep getting back up when I feel like I just can't anymore - without it I probably wouldn't be here anymore. Talking about my own crazy is one of the ways I feel like I can pay that back - if I contribute to the conversation, it gets louder, and maybe more likely to reach everyone who needs to hear it.

Talking about my mental illness, and the way it warps my thinking, actions, and reactions, has also made my life a hell of a lot easier. I've been very lucky to be surrounded by a lot of very empathetic, kind hearted people who wanted to listen, and were happy to take my requests on board. I know that not everyone is so lucky, and so I totally understand why some people are much more tentative about contributing to the conversation about mental illness. I've been fortunate enough to only have one really negative reaction to my "confession" of being mentally ill; for a long time my mother seemed to think it was somehow her fault, and that the sole purpose of therapy was to pin all my issues on her, which wasn't particularly helpful. She's largely come around on this, but to be fair she's viewing my illness through some serious issues of her own. But apart from that, everyone I've "confessed" to has either been supportive, or are in the same boat as me.

For a long time, I didn't think I had a mental illness. I just thought I was creative, and free spirited, and all the nonsense you get in your head from reading too many fantasy novels. I'd been displaying what I now realise were pretty obvious symptoms since I was about 17, but it took until I was 26 for me to have my big breakdown. After losing my job, friends, and nearly my partner too I very reluctantly started therapy, and medication, but I still didn't think I was REALLY crazy. I assumed it was something that would go away with time and effort. I told myself it wasn't really a part of me, it was just a thing that was happening TO me. For some people, depression does go away, and it is just a thing that happens for a while before clearing up. But in my case, it eventually became clear that I wasn't just experiencing temporary depression - I actually really did have a proper personality disorder, and it wasn't going to go away, no matter how much I wanted it to. That was, to be honest, a horrifying realisation. I felt monstrous, deformed, and like continuing was pointless because if it wasn't something that would go away I should just end it now and save everyone in my life the pain of having to deal with my monstrousness.

But then I started listening, and hearing that there were other people out there like me. I started reading a lot online, and discovering there were not only people just like me, but people with more mild symptoms, and people with more debilitating symptoms. They weren't monstrous, or deformed - they were cool people, that I thought were really awesome, and so eventually I started to understand that maybe I wasn't actually monstrous either. But when interacting with other people I was still enormously self conscious - it was one thing for other crazy people to be cool with me, but I wasn't convinced at all that "normal" people would accept me. I also had it in my head that if I just tried hard enough I could hide my crazy, and never have to risk judgement for it. Some people can completely hide their mental illness, and if you can I understand why you would. But that's not me. I came to understand that I not only couldn't hide it, I had been doing a god-awful job of hiding it even when I thought I was doing really well. I started tentatively suggesting to some of my close friends that maybe I might perhaps have a bit of a personality disorder, and the overwhelming response was, "We know." I mean, they were much kinder about it than that, but I came to understand that I didn't have a choice about hiding my mental illness from the people closest to me, because they already knew.

Through a lot (like a LOT) of talking, I did however realise that just because they knew I was crazy didn't mean they actually understood what was going on in my head. Mental illness is a huge complex array of various symptoms and reactions, that all intersect in different ways depending on the individual in question, so even if I told people my exact diagnosis, that was still no guarantee that would actually understand me at all. I discovered that if I didn't talk, people filled the silence with their assumptions. If people saw the scars on my arms from cutting, and they hadn't heard me talk about the reasons I did it, they filled the silence with the assumption that it was just an attempt to gain attention. If I suddenly became cold towards someone I'd previously been really friendly with, and didn't tell them why, they filled the silence with an assumption that I was just being a bitch for kicks. If I needed my partner to just leave me alone for an afternoon, and I hadn't told them how sometimes my head gets so overcrowded it's like trying to think through static, they would naturally fill the silence with an assumption I was being cruel. Just saying, "I have a mental illness" wasn't enough to prevent my behavior from hurting the people around me - I needed to talk, I needed to let them see the gears and motors behind my actions, so they could understand that while it might LOOK like I'm a broken machine, I do actually have my reasons.

So I talk, as much as I can. It's still hard - I'm mostly terrified these days a potential employer will come across this blog and decide they're not going to hire some crazy person. But for me, it's absolutely worth it. I feel a responsibility to contribute to the ongoing conversation about mental illness in a broader sense, because I think it helps contribute to happier crazy people in general. I feel a responsibility to the people who care about me to explain the things I can't prevent, as part of a wider scheme of damage control. And  you know what? It gets easier every time - largely due to the encouraging and supportive people who listen to me.

1 comment:

  1. It is hard and terrifying, but it IS also brave and amazing to talk about this stuff so openly. I heard that a lot when I 'came out', and I still hear it too. But I talk about it for similar reasons.. because I am able to do so for those who can't. And it's part of accepting me as I am, illness and all. It did feel like when I first started telling friends I was bi so long ago... the response has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Anyone who can't deal with the crazy isn't worth my time, anyway.

    Obviously I don't know you super well yet, but when we first met I saw the scars on your arms and my first thought was, "She understands." We all experience mental illness differently and on different scales, but there's still a common thread as well that I think is harder for neurotypical people to completely 'get'. I agree the more voices out there, the more likely we find others who make us feel that much less alone and the more we continue to break the societal stigma about mental illness. So, that is a wordy way of saying I think you're awesome. :) <3