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:
14 thoughts on “Telling People”
Hi Anita! I have just read a few of your blog posts! Wow you write well and more than that with such heart for bringing awareness and openness! You have a lot of great content here and I am sure your writing will speak to so many. I for one had no idea how living with bipolar could be so debilitating. Thank you for sharing so openly.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks so much Zinta for taking the time to stop in and have a read. I’m hoping it will be helpful and informative. Now just have to keep the momentum going!
There has sometimes been some mental illness in my very large family to differing degrees.
I grew up knowing my mother was sometimes very sick. The greatest heartbreak of our relationship , which was otherwise good, was knowing I could not help her. She told me so herself and I lived with this heavy sadness. (this was the 1950’s onwards)
She not only suffered self blaming shame and guilt, but other people, including family, outside acquaintances and people in the medical system thought this highly intelligent woman was “mad”. The stigma was all pervading.
How deep was my sadness when I learnt that my own dear daughter was suffering , in an even more severe way!
My daughter had not really known about her grandmother’s illness. That had been my way of protecting her. I only ever wanted to tell her the good things about her grandmother.
As you know , in reading this blog, my daughter wants to remove the stigma of mental illness.
I applaud her .
She has freed me !
I tell anyone who wants to understand, because the burden of being mentally ill ALONE, destroys lives.
And because I am so proud of her.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I have loved a man with a mental illness for twenty one years. We parented four children together, and had many adventures together. We went through our fair share of challenges and triumphs, and we were very close and maintained an affectionate and authentic love for one another. Yet, because he himself didn’t know he was mentally unwell, I felt I couldn’t tell anybody else. I’d talk about it with him after one of his manic episodes, but he never could see that there was anything out of the usual in his behavior and mood swings. They were usually not very extreme and I was usually the only one adversely affected by them. Even our children didn’t know until they grew old enough to notice for themselves that something was not right with their father. I would talk to our closest friends about it, but it wasn’t until things got dysfunctional that I finally told the kids exactly what was going on. Now that he’s gone, I’m determined to speak up about it and to help create a social climate in which it is safe and normal for others to speak openly about their struggles with mental wellness or the lack of it. I’m glad you’re openly discussing it and helping to raise awareness. It’s so very common, and when people – like you – openly talk about it, it helps others know that they’re not alone and helps impart courage to others to talk about it too.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you so much for reading and commenting. What an immense heaviness that must have been not being able to talk about what you were going through. I applaud you for now communicating openly with your kids about it, and for wanting to use your experience for good. I try to communicate age appropriately about my illness with my children. I think we will make a big difference for future generations if we can give our children an understanding of and compassion around mental illness.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes! Creating an understanding of mental illness is the first hurdle to overcome. Then comes the compassion. Then hopefully more support and more help will follow.
You, the younger generation are going about it in exactly the right way, although you carry heavy burdens.
Well done to both of you, Anita and Emily. I look forward to when you are joined by many, many more people, speaking out and doing what you are doing.
LikeLiked by 1 person