November 22, 2012

Painting of purple heartI work in a mental health team. I’m comfortable talking about mental health: the strength it takes to recover, the resourcefulness and courage which many of my clients have in abundance, the stigma, the hope. I will willingly and passionately do what I can to raise awareness about mental health in my role as a social worker.

I advocate for my clients. I challenge family, friends, and the public when I hear ignorant and judgemental comments. I was ecstatic about the recent mental health debate in the UK Parliament.Yet, most of my colleagues know nothing about my mental health ‘history’. Those closest to me at work know I’ve had therapy in the past. But I’ve never said the words. I’ve never made it personal.

These are people to whom I’ve ranted and raved about the failings of the system, who have supported me when I’ve been in tears over a difficult or emotionally demanding case, who have seen me at my professional best and at my frustrated worst. I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of talking, of being open and honest. I believe in speaking about the uncomfortable and unspoken things in life, because when a subject is untouchable, it is far too powerful. And I don’t want to live my life afraid of things.

I’ve never spoken at work about my eating disorder

But I’ve never spoken at work about my eating disorder. I can’t even remember how I first told people, several years ago, when I realised that I had fallen back into the grip of anorexia. I know that I knew inside long before I plucked up the courage to say the words. I do remember telling my boss at my old workplace. I was in desperate need of treatment and had to confess to my ‘madness’ so that I could negotiate time off work. (For the record, they were wonderful about it.) Even now, when I say the word ‘anorexia’, I feel very unsure of myself.

It is my most shameful, painful secret. I expect judgement; I know perfectly well that most people don’t understand eating disorders. I am afraid that knowing this new thing about me will mean people see me differently; as ‘less than’ I was before. I don’t want them questioning my professional competence. And I don’t completely trust that they won’t. And the last thing I want is people scrutinising what I eat, believing it is not truly behind me (although I wouldn’t blame them), scrutinising my body for the slightest sign of weight gain or loss. In my weaker moments, I can do all that for myself, thank you very much.

I still dread the comment ‘but you look so well now!’

Also, if I am truly honest, I still dread the comment ‘but you look so well now!’ That has the potential to throw me off kilter for the rest of the day. Or until I finally get myself together again and realise, no, I don’t want my bones to stick out anymore. I don’t want to be exhausted, I don’t want my life to shrink, along with my body. Healthy is better. Free is better.

So, I find myself asking, if I really believe the things I say, that having a mental health problem is common, that it doesn’t make you a failure, that recovery makes you stronger, than it isn’t my fault, and it isn’t anyone else’s either, then why do I struggle to speak out?

speaking honestly about my own issues and experiences is the real challenge

Of course part of the answer, is that it is personal. It is easy to jump on my high horse about the abstract or proudly raise awareness ‘professionally’ but, when it comes down to the reality of making myself vulnerable and sticking my neck on the line, speaking honestly about my own issues and experiences is the real challenge. But it is important. And it is a challenge that I am beginning to rise to.

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