This is a tricky topic that comes up for anyone with a diagnosed mental illness. Who to tell, and how to do it? There are so many levels to the issue of disclosure – do you tell family members? Do you put it on your Drivers License? Does your insurer know? Your boss? Your kids school? People manage the issues around disclosure with reactions ranging from – ‘I’m completely and utterly out’, to ‘no one but my doctor knows’ and all kinds in between. There isn’t a right answer here. It is a question I have grappled with for years. There are pros and cons to both being out and playing your cards close to your chest. The worst of it, is that it’s difficult to trial being out and then take it back if you don’t like how it’s all turned out. And there’s a whole host of secondary issues – lets assume for a moment you do want to tell so-and-so. How? When? How much information?
For me, the issue of disclosure has, and continues to be thorny. Learning more about what I was experiencing (and the clinical terms connected to those experiences) in therapy put me in a strange bind. The more I learned about myself, the more secrets I was keeping from other people in my life. I didn’t like this feeling at all. I found it very challenging to continue with the goal of self-awareness, when it seemed to so badly be compromising my other goal of being an honest and authentic person. The alternative – of being out, was firstly unthinkable when I was in the long stage of ‘we’re not quite sure what diagnosis fits you’. And that was a long stage. And secondly, the massive stigma attached to mental illness made me extremely leery. I was bullied a lot at school, and one of the terms that particularly stuck was being called a freak. Putting my hand up to say “I have a mental illness” felt like voluntarily branding myself a freak. When I didn’t have to! If you don’t have to wear the dunce hat and sit in the corner, why do it?
Mental illnesses can have an attraction/repulsion dynamic, where people are both repelled and fascinated by them. I find this deeply uncomfortable. Mental illnesses can be glamorized, treated as a discrete category of more interesting people who have genuinely experienced life in the way mere mortals cannot comprehend. I’m not particularly comfortable with this either. Mental illnesses often make people really afraid. They lose trust, they no longer feel like they can predict you. Sometimes people will assume you’re dangerous. And lastly, mental illness can quickly become your defining characteristic. The thing people first think of when they hear your name. Not, Sarah K Reece, artist. Poet. Friend. Funny person, quirky character, cat-lover, great cook, but mentally ill. If I was killed in a car accident tomorrow, and somehow ended up with a newspaper article about it, it would read Sarah Reece (because everyone always drops the middle K damn their eyes!), mentally ill woman killed in collision. And that sucks. I’ve already experienced this, a little while ago I went to Parliament to give a talk about how my mental illness has impacted upon my education and career. To my surprise, I was quoted in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. They didn’t do too bad a job, for the media. MIFSA was referred to as a support group which was a bit daft. But still, the shock of seeing my name in print about mental illness – not as a clinician, not as an interested party, but as a person with a mental illness and frankly no other credentials to hide behind except for the true but slightly lame ‘I read a lot’, it was a shock.
There’s a terrible vulnerability to putting this kind of information in the public sphere. I’ve been doing a fair amount of public speaking over the last year, and as terrifying as that can be, at least you are choosing what and how you say things. Having other people write and say what they wish is a whole extra level of feeling vulnerable. And there’s always that nasty accusation – that you are motivated by a craving for attention, or that you are trading on your condition, hoping to somehow cash in on the sympathy factor. When you’re screwing up all your courage to give out information like this in the hope that it will help to raise awareness, decrease stigma, and humanise what is too often feared and misunderstood, this attitude is deeply discouraging.
But, returning to the personal field – when do you tell someone you’re dating? Which friends know? How much do they know? Which family members? What about the ones you don’t get along with? The road I’m walking is of slowly moving towards a place where I keep less secrets. For me, the stress of feeling I’m hiding something, and the unreasonable sense of shame that accompanies it, is a huge cost. I want to live in a world where it doesn’t matter that much. And the only way that’s ever going to happen is if people like me start talking. If people who are afraid discover that, yes, I may hallucinate when stressed, but did you know we both loved that new movie. That mental illness does not define me, is not the only thing you ever need to know about me in order to know me. That it is one part of a whole life of loves, fears, hopes, hobbies, and licorice allsorts.
So, assuming for a minute that you have someone you want to tell, what then? For me, I’ve moved slowly. I’ve laid a lot of groundwork with the people who’s reaction was really, really important to me. I’ve done a lot of quiet educating about mental health in general conversations, and moved us slowly towards that final step of revealing my own issues. There are of course, many other options! This is just what’s worked for me (so far). I found two books in particular to have some helpful advice about the issues of disclosure and relationships, The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner, and There’s Something I Have To Tell You by Charles Foster. In particular Chapter Nine – Very Hot Issues in Dance had some really thoughtful points in it. For example:
…you cannot learn to swim by jumping off the high dive. This is particularly true when it comes to emotionally loaded issues. Before bringing up a big one, we need to practice bringing up the small ones.
In other words, work on building intimacy, connectedness, and good communication before dropping a bombshell and hoping for the best! Something had some excellent advice about when and why to share information, how to have realistic expectations and actually having the big conversation.
This entire book is based on a simple principle that can help people navigate among all their duties. It’s the Principle of Responsible Honesty:
Something is hard to say because it creates needs in you and in the other person. You tell the truth most responsibly and effectively when the way you tell takes into account the needs your truth creates and goes some distance towards meeting those needs.
Food for thought.