Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Talking About Mental Illness, Unashamedly

I was diagnosed with depression in July 2012, after I guess what could be described as “a little bit of a breakdown” (sorry Paul Simon, for borrowing from one of your songs).  

It wasn’t a sudden thing, but the culmination of years, decades really, of relentless hammering at my resilience, my self-confidence, my joy. 

I resorted to half-truths to explain to family and friends why I wasn’t at work at first: I was using up some of the comp time I’d acquired from all the overtime I’d worked in the previous months.  True, as far as having the comp time from working overtime; false as for why I was taking time off.  

I’d been off work for months before I told my closest friends that I was still off work, and why. I knew they would support me. But every time I talked to them and was about to “admit” what was going on with me, I’d feel … shame. 

Look at that word: admit.  That right there speaks to the stigma I not only applied to my diagnosis, but that I expected to receive from others. 

It took time for me to accept my diagnosis. And during that time, I found a tribe of mental health bloggers to follow, and authors who, through their books, shared their stories. I began to feel less alone. Their stories were my lifeline. I looked up to them. I saw the value in speaking out. 

By the time I returned to work four months later, I was becoming more comfortable with being honest about my ongoing battle with depression with anyone who asked me about my time off work. But I still hesitated to volunteer anything. 

Over the following months and years, I began, incrementally, to proactively share my story with co-workers, extended family, acquaintances — whenever it lent itself to the conversation. 

And something unexpected began to transpire: each time I volunteered my story, I felt stronger. 

I felt a little more confident because — instead of waiting for people to find out, or guess, and then wonder what they would assume or how they might react — I was putting it out there, unashamedly. I was setting the tone. I was controlling the story.  Because, finally, I didn’t feel shame. 

A few weeks ago, I met with a psychiatrist because I, and my new family doctor, had begun to suspect I may have been misdiagnosed all those years ago. His diagnosis confirmed my suspicions: I have bipolar II and social anxiety disorder. 

That night, I changed the description of my mental illness in my blog from depression to bipolar. The next day, I joined in helping to make Sarah Fader’s #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike hashtag trend on Twitter.  I’ve been telling my friends and family as I talk to them. This time, I am not ashamed. 

This is why we need to tweet, blog and share our mental illness stories, unashamedly: so that the people coming after us won’t ever feel ashamed for having a mental illness. 

Because there is NO SHAME in mental illness. 

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