August 3, 2012

Photo of a DandylionI have been battling with depression and an eating disorder since my early teens, over half my life. Yet I spent the majority of this time lying about it.

This pattern of behaviour was learnt from my family. My absence at family gatherings was always explained away by headaches, exam revision or holidays.

This ‘protection’ from shame that was actually stoking the fires of social stigma impacted on me and I began to internalise the lies. When my problems came to a head in my late teens my mother took to me see specialists, but I denied my illness to them. Ironically, I made up stories about family commitments when I couldn’t make it out with friends.

In later years, I explained the gaps in my C.V. with more socially acceptable, physical problems during interviews and in jobs. I even lied to myself. The self-stigma ran deep.

my words and actions were building a web of deceit that was becoming difficult to maintain

I was unaware of the repercussions this would have on my self-esteem. I thought I was protecting myself but my words and actions were building a web of deceit that was becoming difficult to maintain. I simultaneously inhabited two worlds yet the pressure of doing so intensified my illness and I was constantly living in fear that my ruse would be discovered. In effect, I was acting as my own worst enemy, strengthening the walls of stigma I privately and so desperately wanted to tear down.

Thanks to the help of a training project with my local Mind the transformation from reinforcing the lie to spreading hope through honesty began to take shape. The project encourages service users to give personal testimonies of their lived experiences with mental health conditions in training sessions arranged to raise awareness of mental health amongst employee’s of local businesses, statutory services, other charities and community organisations in the area. It was a daunting step after so long in denial.

I took the plunge to bear my history in public

However, I realised the value the opportunity and took the plunge to bear my history in public. Spurring me on was hope. Hope that my story could help others understand the causes behind my illness, the behaviours it brings to bear and the coping strategies I employ all of which had been my private world. Hope that I could encourage people to approach mental illness with less caution, start conversations with less judgement and discover the similarities between us often outweigh the differences. And finally, hope that in the process it could change how I see myself.

As I am a victim of the stigma I fight, I was intensely worried that my story would be negatively judged and the vulnerability of exposure would heighten my nerves. Yet these worried remained unproved. As the only expert on the subject matter of my life I found the nerves subsided at ‘Good morning.....’ and when the session closed I was met with kindness. People valued my candid account and applauded my bravery. I was genuinely shocked, yet, at the same time, satisfied.

I never imagined that my secret shame could be turned into a vehicle for change and progress

I never imagined that my secret shame could be turned into a vehicle for change and progress. But as it was my secret desire too, I could not have been more pleased. Not only were my new steps in honesty helping to hack away at the stigma ‘out there’, its reception was helping to melt the stigma I had comforted myself with ‘inside’ and the empowerment of this honesty lingered. Subtly, I felt it infuse my days with a renewed sense of confidence.

With this in mind, I encourage anyone hiding the light of his or her story behind false shame to let it shine out. Be proud to talk with honesty where you feel comfortable, whether this be with family members, friends, or in a more public forum like I did. The fight is harder where you stand now; so let honesty ease the burden.

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