Day 16: How many people are you “out” to with your mental illness (es)? Why?
The day I decided to become open about my illnesses was a tough one. Even in the hospital while I was still finding out what was the matter with me all those years I was so ashamed. I was trying to understand what I had done wrong to let this happen to me. Had I been lazy? Did I not exercise enough? Was I secretly trying to get attention and give up on life? Should I even be working? Will I have to be sedated and placed in a padded room??
That was all I knew of mental illness…slacked jawed, drooling faces, strait jackets and padded rooms. And here I was in a mental hospital (which now they didn’t call ‘mental hospitals’…they are referred to ‘Behavioral Health Rehab Centers’). I was so afraid but the shame and confusion was bigger than the fear. I was worried for my children and my future. While in the hospital I did realize it wasn’t as uncommon as I thought to end up where I was for something like I had.
As I have mentioned before, as soon as I left and had recovered some from the depression to concentrate enough to read, I went to the library and checked out everything I could find on mental illness, depression and suicide. I would search the internet at every free moment for support pages and groups and tried to find survivor groups (I found none…only pages for loved ones of those who had completed attempts) or any people I could talk to that had found their way out of such a deep depression. I needed to read, hear, and learn of a success story so I didn’t feel like such a lost cause. It took a while, but I did find one. And it was just the hope I needed to stand up and move forward. (http://attemptsurvivors.com/)
It was there that I first began to feel ‘safe’ to write about how I felt; the fear and uncertainty, my depression and the pain. All of the reasons why I wanted to disappear. Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone anymore. I realized I wasn’t ‘crazy’ and doomed to a life of hospitals and padded cells. I exchanged messages with other people, some like me others better and many worse in their illnesses; journalists, doctors, lawyers, stay at home moms, engineer Dads, writers, teachers, psychiatrists! So little by little, I would talk more about what I was going through with those around me. I came to find we needed people to start talking for us because of this STIGMA that caused me to hide my illness in such a way that I wouldn’t even identify it in me. I was stigmatizing myself and it almost cost my kids their mom. I found, in this group, a few brave people who would post their story of downward fall and their battle to come back up again. Some of these people even would put their real name in the posting! I still couldn’t imagine anyone knowing this about me.
Then the moderator/editor (herself having attempted and having depression) messaged me telling me that she liked my writing and asking if I would write something on a couple of subjects she needed addressed for the website. I agreed and got them to her quickly. She mentioned wanting me to write about ‘Coming out as a professional in the working world’ and attaching my name to it, if I felt comfortable and I froze. I thought there was NO way I would let people at work, clients, associates, my BOSSES know I had gone through that. Admitting such a weakness in my career, when all I have done my whole life was build a resume for this job?! If I did that, I felt it would be like negating my 12 years of primary schooling and all of the extra-curricular and volunteer hours I invested; canceling the full scholarship I earned; tearing up the honors awards; burning my summa cum laude honor cord, and never having earned my degrees at all. I just knew that one bad day would erase all the hard work I had toiled over for all of those years. The nights I stayed up to make sure every project and presentation was perfect. The days/weeks/months/years I would work 8 hours, then come home to feed and bathe my kids and head out to hours of classes to come back home and do my homework and squeeze in a couple of hours of sleep before starting over were for nothing.
But I did it anyway. I wrote the article and submitted it with my name typed in its entirety at the bottom. Christine Florence O’Hagan. I probably didn’t have to include my middle name, but why stop there?? And then I figured I might as well put some truth to the article. I started with my friends. People I love who I felt loved me back for who I was. People who always made me feel good and healthy and strong; my close running group. We travel together and laugh together and drink together and our kids play together. Aside from blood relatives, no one knew me better and I felt that I had nothing else to prove to them. They knew me for who I was. Aside from my pain, I wore no masks in front of them. And we ran marathons together, there isn’t much more pain one can feel other than what I was about to share with them. My Pavement Pounder friends found out my painful, scary, horrible secret first. Via Facebook (I am not THAT brave, folks)! And I did get a few very loving, supportive (and honest admissions of not understanding) from many of them. I didn’t get one negative, back turned, or blatant un-friend among them. This was my best case scenario. They helped me be brave enough to keep going…
So about 6 months after what was the worst day of my life I began to speak out. I now am not ashamed or embarrassed of my illnesses and don’t consider myself in any kind of closet (OR padded room for that matter). I did the best I could with what I had and all I knew for as long as I could and I broke. I know much more now and I know that what I did took strength. And I did survive and what I do now counts. And this is what I choose to do. If I find stigma and repulsion and snobbery or fear I am prepared to address it. I understand it because I felt the same way myself. People fear what they do not know. So I can help them know. And research shows the most effective way to defeat stigma is for a healthy, unaffected person to meet and talk to someone with mental illness. Once they are shown we are not monsters, the stigma lessens. There are a broad spectrum of mental illnesses and personality disorders. Some biological (as most of mine are, except for PTSD) some are due to trauma but NONE are the fault of the afflicted.
I don’t really consider myself very brave or exceptionally strong, just more so now than I was last year. But I think of my kids and their children and I know this is something I can make better for them and their future whether or not any of these illnesses affect them. So for me to not be absolutely, 100%, ‘out’/open/honest/real about this would be criminal and for that I would deserve to be stigmatized.
So in conclusion, I am “out” to 7.2 billion people as of today (according to the World Almanac).