Coming Out Of The Mental Illness Closet
When I was first diagnosed with depression, the only people who knew about it were me, my psychiatrist, and my therapist. While I was relieved to know that I had a disease after suffering for so long, I was embarrassed and ashamed. I understood the stigma around mental illness and I didn’t want to be associated with that.
For years I hid trips to my psychiatrist, medications, anything associated with having depression. When coworkers made jokes about mental illness — calling people crazy, using illness names as adjectives instead of nouns — I remained silent. I was offended by their conversation, but I couldn’t say anything. What would they think of me if they knew? I had an image: funny, Ivy League educated, sharp minded, easy to work with. I couldn’t jeopardize that perception, and I thought that having a mental illness would ruin my chances for advancement. So I stayed in the mental illness closet.
I kept my disease a secret until I had a severe manic episode and had to go into the hospital for treatment. There I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent two weeks coming to terms with what that would mean for my life. Because I was gone from life and incommunicado for several days, I had to tell my dad, my cousins and my best friend what was going on. Of course they were supportive and didn’t treat me differently. But I still knew that I had to carry the burden of silence with the rest of the world –especially professionally.
Then something happened. At the urging of a college mate, I started a blog. I wrote at first about random things — getting hit on by men in passing cars, going on vacation with family. Then I started writing about my disease, but under a pseudonym to preserve my privacy. I wasn’t ready to come out of the mental illness closet, but I felt like I had to express my feelings. Feelings that I’d been tamping down and holding in for years.
It felt freeing to get my emotions down on paper and out into the world, even though I was still anonymous. But I promoted my blog on Twitter and soon started a community of people with mental illness through that medium. I wrote about my experiences and my followers talked about how my writing had touched them. They were also in varying degrees of the mental illness closet and needed to know that they were not alone in their suffering. Getting that level of feedback made me feel like I was contributing goodness and a necessary resource to the world. I was empowered to tell more of my friends about my disease, getting support and encouragement along the way.
Flash forward to 2013 and the worst depressive episode of my life. I couldn’t hold a job because I couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying. I was hospitalized once that year, and once the following year because none of my treatments seemed to work. Even after my last hospitalization, my mood and my energy were slow to improve and I wondered what my life would become. I was scared and exhausted and worried about my future.
Then I started to write again, this time using my real name.
I came all the way out of the mental illness closet on my blog, in my personal life, on my social media accounts which now featured my government moniker. And I started to write for publications like this one, revealing details of my disease and telling my story. Many people told me that I was brave for being completely truthful. Colleagues and classmates from across the country wrote me notes of encouragement and support.
Most important to me were the notes I got from complete strangers, people like you who read about me and have experiences like mine. Some people ask me for advice about themselves or loved ones. Some just write to thank me for coming out of the mental illness closet because they, too, share my disease and are looking for hope. The fact that I can connect with other individuals by the mere fact of telling my truth has been the most important part of my recovery, and of my life right now. I know what it would’ve meant to me to know that other people like me were living with depression and bipolar. Now I get to be that person for someone else, and the importance is not lost on me.
I take seriously every email I get because I know that I’m breaking down barriers and reducing stigma by doing what I do. I worry less about what other people think of me and my illness, because I know who I am and what I’m about. Sometimes I do worry that being so truthful will still harm my work and dating prospects once someone Googles me. But I take those worries as they come, and take heart in the fact that improving — or at least brightening — others’ lives is part of my journey, and probably part of my calling.