I’m good at acting like I have it together. I know how to be polite and smile and be “normal.” I’m high-functioning and practiced at hiding the symptoms of my mental illness. Every time I confide in people that I struggle with mental illness, they are surprised. They usually respond, “But you seem so normal!” I smile. I am aware I seem “normal.” Although I can hide my symptoms, I choose to keep telling people about my struggle with mental illness for several reasons.
1. It helps others know how to relate to me.
I might seem like I have it all together, but I don’t. I struggle every day. I need people who affirm me and support me. I need people I can reach out to when I am struggling. I know it can be hard to support someone with a mental illness. But when I share what is going on with me, then I give them an opportunity to support me. If I don’t tell them, then they don’t know since I’m good at hiding my symptoms. I have to keep sharing about my mental illnesses so I can build the relationships that are necessary for my life.
2. It gives me an opportunity to raise awareness.
There are so many misunderstandings and stereotypes about mental illness. By giving a face to bipolar disorder, panic disorder and dissociative identity disorder (DID), I am able to give a new perspective. As I share my story, people can understand mental illness better. Often people tell me, “Thank you. Now I understand my relative or friend better.” It seems like everyone has a connection to mental illness, whether through their own life experiences or the experience of a loved one. By sharing my story, I can challenge a stereotype and fight the stigma of mental illness. It amazes me how the small act of sharing about my mental illness can make a big impact, but it continues to do so.
3. It gives people an opportunity to share their pain with me.
Often, I feel like no one could understand me since I have unusual mental illness problems. And it’s true that my combination of bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder is rare. But there are so many people who struggle with mental illness, so I’m not alone in my struggle. And there are many people battling secret hurts and pain. Often, after I share about my mental illness with someone, they share with me about their secret struggle, whether it is a form of mental illness, chronic illness, grief or something else. Someone confides in me, “I have also been struggling. I had a panic attack last week and it was so scary. I still don’t understand it.” Someone else says, “I am having such a hard time right now because Monday was the anniversary of my mother’s death.” Someone else says, “Things have been rough for me. My husband and I have been fighting. I’m afraid he’s going to leave me.” Each time someone confesses their secret pain to me, I watch their face, I see how they have been holding the pain inside and they are deeply hurting. I see their relief as they share their inner secret with me. I am able to comfort them. We form a deep bond. I remember that I don’t hold a monopoly on emotional pain and struggling. I’ve had people tell me, “I’ve never told anyone about my depression,” or, “I’ve never told anyone that I almost attempted suicide last year.” These people probably wouldn’t have felt safe confiding in me unless I shared my story first. After I share and they respond, we begin to have these deep and amazing conversations.
4. Authenticity is good for the soul.
I was raised in a family where we were supposed to keep up a certain image and couldn’t be authentic with each other. We were expected to be nice and polite and keep it together. Now, as an adult, I relish the opportunity to be vulnerable and real with other people. It is so healthy for me to be transparent with friends and acquaintances. I can see how refreshing it is for others when I give them permission to be real with me. I am careful in professional situations; I keep careful boundaries at work and school. But in my personal life, I share my highs and lows, my struggles and personal victories. People often tell me that my openness and honesty are refreshing. I think we have a tendency to put up walls so we’re safe and don’t get hurt. I think taking the walls down, when it’s safe to share, can help us heal from the pain we secretly feel.
I have been struggling recently. I’ve felt like everyone else is happy and excited due to the holiday season, but I am depressed, lonely and isolated due to my panic attacks. I have felt like no one could understand and I don’t want to be the “depressing friend.” But then, on Monday, I went to a poetry workshop at a homeless shelter with some other volunteers. The other volunteers shared some safe poems they wrote about the holiday. I wrote some personal poems about my emotions. I thought no one would be able to understand. But after I shared each poem, everyone in the room said they related. I saw how my sharing gave them permission to share their personal struggle. One of the homeless women said to me, “You are able to delve deep down into yourself and bring out something we can relate to.” After I read my poem, I felt this deep connection to everyone there, despite our diversity. I didn’t share explicitly about my mental illness. But by sharing my heart, I was able to bring the workshop to a deep place where we could speak authentically about our emotions and secret pain.
I will keep sharing about my struggle with mental illness because it is good for me and so many other people I meet. I encourage everyone to be open and authentic about your personal struggle as well.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
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Original painting via contributor.