In the past my instinct has always been to hide the fact that I suffer from a mental health condition, as I have felt embarrassed, weak, ashamed, and misunderstood.
Yet recently, after some twenty years, this has finally changed. There are numerous reasons for this, but mainly I am just sick and tired of the constant secrets, lies, evasions, and deceptions that hiding a mental health disorder entails.
In the past I would say almost anything to avoid admitting to suffering from severe anxiety
In the past I would say almost anything to avoid admitting to suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks in certain situations. I would joke that I had to take my car everywhere, rather than walking or taking public transport, because of my love of ridiculously high heels. I would cry off social engagements that might entail being in unfamiliar, noisy, or crowded places, by pretending to be physically ill. And I had not made a new friend in years, as I would rather come across as aloof and unfriendly, rather than risk getting close to someone and having them reject or pity me when they learned of my condition.
Having finally decided that enough was enough – and realising that ultimately the main person who was suffering from my nondisclosure was me – I made a conscious choice to be more open about my anxiety. Yet, having kept my secret so well, for so long, I wasn’t sure how to even go about starting to talk about my anxiety.
I decided to be as honest as was appropriate about my anxiety, in the given situation
So I just decided to keep it simple and matter of fact, give only the details I was comfortable with, and be as honest as was appropriate in the given situation. I also resolved that if I encountered negative reactions – as I sometimes have in the past – I would do my best not to take it personally and to understand that such responses are usually due to ignorance rather than malice.
Examples in which being open about my mental health has helped
So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how my newfound openness is going and believe that both myself and others have benefitted from it, as I hope the below examples will help to illustrate:
- This summer, I went away for a week to a country house with my family to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday. The day after we arrived, at his birthday party, I was asked how I was doing by a couple who I hadn’t seen in years. And, instead of talking about my work, house, dog, or marriage – as I would usually do – I simply answered honestly. It had been a very rough few years, I said, as I had been suffering from extreme anxiety, but things were now looking up.
The response? The (lovely, confident, and glamorous) woman had also been suffering from severe, debilitating anxiety, as well as depression. Before I knew it, we were engrossed in a conversation about what medications and therapies we had tried, as well as complimenting each other on our outfits and having fun. Had I not been open with her I would have missed out on the opportunity to share experiences, feel supported and less alone, and have some warm and genuine interaction.
- I am a freelance researcher and writer and earlier this year I was recommended for some work in an area I was very interested in. However, as it was an academic project, I knew that there was the possibility that the work might entail tasks such as presentations or meetings with the project funders, which are my idea of hell.
In the past I would have taken the easy way out and said that I was unavailable for the work. But I really wanted the job, so I was simply straight: I told them that I although I was eminently qualified in terms of my research skills, my anxiety disorder precluded any sort of public speaking. Again, I was rewarded by my honesty. The project head assured me that I would not be discriminated against on that basis and, happily, she loved doing presentations and wasn’t so keen on writing: with me being the opposite, we would (and did) make a good team.
- Finally, being more open has helped me to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances who I had deliberately lost contact with, as it seemed easier than having to constantly explain why I couldn’t do the things we used to do together. Recently I have been back in touch with several such people: explaining my condition and apologising for losing touch. Their reactions are summed up by the words of one former colleague in a text: ‘I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through all that. I just wish you’d told me at the time, maybe I could have helped.’
So there we go: not a list of do’s and don’t’s for talking about having a mental health disorder – as everyone is different – but I hope that my experiences can help show that being frank about mental illness can have its benefits.