There comes a moment in many of my conversations when I have a choice to lie or tell the truth. If I’m meeting a new person I don’t tend to lead with: ‘I have Bipolar Disorder’, unless it’s relevant. However, the longer I know someone, the more likely we are to reach that moment of disclosure. It came up within days of my discharge from a recent hospital stay. I ran into an acquaintance who asked how I was.
And there was a second, where it would have been so easy to answer with the expected: ‘Fine.’ Or ‘Busy’ And leave it at that. If it had been a person I didn’t know asking, I would have. But this was someone I see quite often. So, I gave an honest answer: ‘Ok, but I have just spent a month in hospital. I have Bipolar Disorder, and sometimes it flares up badly.’
Just over eleven years on from my first episode of this illness, and having long ago worked through my own denial of being landed with it, I still feel uncomfortable verbalising it to someone for the first time. It makes me feel reduced and one dimensional. Only for a moment, but I hate that it does, because on a logical level I know I have nothing to feel ashamed of.
So why do I talk about it?
One reason is purely practical. When people in my life know, it becomes much easier for them to offer support to my husband and children, when I have to go into hospital. And the stress of trying to keep the illness and any hospital stays hidden would slow down my recovery.
I also strongly believe in modelling a world without stigma around mental illness for my children. In our home, my illness is part of the same dialogue as any other illness that would regularly flare up and put me in hospital. When I get sick, my children have always known exactly where I have gone (the hospital) and why (my Bipolar Disorder).
That’s not the case in all families. Some patients are so impacted by stigma they attempt to hide what’s going on from children, partners, friends, employers, and acquaintances who ask them how they are.
Unfortunately, the collateral damage of late diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and mistreatment, all often courtesy of our poorly funded public mental health system is huge. It can include loss of employment, accommodation, close relationships, life, or identity. If they survive, the patient isn’t likely to want to talk about experiences that have scarred them.
Deciding whether to be open about your mental illness is an intensely personal decision. Sometimes the best choice is to conserve your energy for recovery, and only talk about it once you’ve recovered. Or it’s being selective about who you tell. Or it’s not talking about it at all.
I am lucky. I haven’t experienced any direct effects of stigma. Because of this, I feel it’s important for me to be open. And I have never liked the idea of anyone talking for me, so having my own voice, has been crucial to my recovery each time. The exception to this is when I am so unwell, the symptoms of the illness interfere with my ability to communicate coherently.
I know both severe mania and psychosis make me a frustrating partner in conversation. Pressured speech, jumping from one topic to the next with no obvious link, talking about things that don’t exist in anyone else’s world all erode my credibility. So, for me, I know it’s best to wait until these symptoms have eased, before I write or speak about them.
Severe depression leaches the colour out of my reality, and leaves me with little energy, so communication has to be limited to essential only. I know the symptoms of depression will make me seem flat, dull, pessimistic, or just unable to maintain a conversation. Again, I save communicating about it in any detail until the worst has passed.
When I am well, it’s easier to be open, because I am myself and can show people that with the right care it is possible to recover from episodes of severe mental illness and be a productive employee, a great parent, friend, partner, and highly functioning member of society. Talking about it also shows those around me that mental illness can happen to anyone, and many of us are living with it.
If you have a mental illness, and feel you might be able to be open about it, think about this:
The more sufferers speak out about their experiences, the faster we break down stigma, the simpler treatment becomes for those who come after us…and maybe, just maybe, we can convince our politicians to inject enough money and resources into the public mental health system, to resuscitate it to a level where it can help those who can’t afford private health insurance.
I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences around disclosing mental illness – whether you were the person doing the telling, or the person being told. So, feel free to leave comments here. Or if you’d prefer to reach me confidentially – then e-mailing me or personal messaging me via Facebook is the best option.
Talking About Mental Illness With Children may also be of interest to you, as may: