I’m unsure I’ve ever been described as an ‘inspiration’, until now. Should it even matter?
I think it does because words – carefully-chosen or not – can shape attitudes. How often have we watched, or read about, a Paralympian’s medal-winning success and the adjective ‘inspirational’ has been used? It’s meant as a sincere compliment, and yet an unintended consequence may be to reinforce what makes them different.
The same could apply to mental health, particularly if it’s framed as an illness one ‘admits’ to having. “Ultimately, we need to get to a point where a big announcement or confession isn’t needed, but for now I feel a sense of relief for you that you’ve overcome that hurdle,” said a close mate of mine. He is gay, and related entirely to living with a secret that can seem burdensome.
When I described for the first time my own experience of managing depression, and living with anxiety, I was pensive about how people would react. It was something I couldn’t control, and sharing the fact I was vulnerable led to me believing I would be more so once others found out.
My friends, certainly the ones I love most, occupied my thoughts most of all. So, I asked them what sensations they remember while reading my first blog for Time to Change, in which I attempted to explain why I’d been inspired to volunteer for a campaign that focuses on challenging stigma surrounding mental health.
One by one, my phone lit up with their responses. “I think people will be inspired by your words,” read the first text that arrived. Meanwhile the second said: “I’m proud you made a brave decision to put your issues out there.” A pattern was forming by the time a third followed. It added: “I found inspiration from the fact you’d taken a step to go public with something so personal.” And that’s uplifting, at least initially.
I was frightened, and still am, that they’d change the way they act towards me or begin to censor the things they say. But which bit is inspirational? Perhaps they perceive me to be better now and to have left behind a former, less well, version of myself. Maybe it’s because I seem to balance what I do, be that personally or professionally, despite having a mental illness.
I’m certain it’s uninspiring for others to discover I’ve risen from my bed in the morning, yet occasionally for me that’s a momentous achievement. I don’t know if it’s brave to leave my apartment, particularly when every fibre of my body is willing against it, and go to work. And yet when I make it there, at my lowest ebb, I’ve recorded a significant victory.
That is not to say that people’s kindness, and their attempt to comfort me, isn’t appreciated. I insist; it really is. But to share how my mental health affects my daily life, and in turn exposing that to a wider audience, carried a risk. I don’t regret taking it though.
“To read your sentiments showed bravery to challenge yourself,” was another of the messages I received this week. “It was remarkable to observe you take it on.”
I don’t write about how depression feels to be considered courageous, rather to reach out to those having – or have had – a similar experience. Another motivation is to encourage empathy, or at least a richer understanding, among others that haven’t.
When reflecting on people’s reactions, I wonder if that’s been a blind-spot. That’s why I looked again at my friends’ replies. “Reading your words made me feel like you said; it’s ok not to be ok,” wrote one. “And so, I sent a link to a friend I knew had struggled because I thought it would help him. And it did.”
Studying once more that third message was illuminating as well. It concluded: “You described your own disguise and it made me want to drop mine and not keep things hidden behind it.”
And there it is; that’s what inspires me to campaign.