Eight years ago, when I first started to notice symptoms, I didn’t associate them with mental illness. I thought that months of 100-hour work weeks had tired me out, and that a couple of days off work (and some willpower) would fix me. A short time later, I found myself on a subway platform, feeling overpoweringly, inescapably compelled to jump. I was diagnosed with very severe bipolar disorder.
For a long time, I kept it as secret as possible from everyone except those closest to me. It really came down to my son. I was afraid that if I said anything publicly about my mental illness, he’d be teased about it. I could imagine only too well the things that kids might say in the school yard. Then one day I realized that – at a very visceral level – I didn’t want him to grow up in a society where people were afraid to disclose a medical condition because the stigma would hurt their family. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a CAMIMH Face of Mental Illness, and people across the country heard my story. I even heard from former classmates living in the U.S.
What have I learned during the last eight years? A lot about mental illness, of course; but even more about fear, misinformation and stigma. More importantly, I’ve learned about trust, hope and understanding. I’ve lost touch with a few people I knew, who were afraid of my diagnosis – but many of my friendships were profoundly strengthened. Today, I have close friends who I would not even have met if we hadn’t talked about mental illness (mine, their own, or that of someone they cared about).
Since I spoke up about my illness, I’ve had friends – very pictures of stability and competence – tell me that they have been there, too. Sadly, they speak to me in whispers, or behind closed doors. I’ve had strangers tell me (often cathartically) about their struggles. Some of these people are afraid to seek treatment, or ask for necessary information. Almost none of them have told their co-workers; even fewer have told their employer.
This is why I say so openly that I live with a mental illness. Until we can discuss it freely, there will always be fear, misunderstanding and misinformation. It’s really scary to talk about something so personal, but it’s been worth it. And thanks to everyone who has been willing to say something about their symptoms, diagnosis or experiences, things really are changing. In part, it appears to be a generational evolution. I’ve heard some terrible things said about those who have a mental illness by apparently well-educated, successful adults, but my son has never been teased. Not once. There have been some difficult (but very important) conversations in several of his classrooms…but he and his classmates are getting accurate information. And they understand that there is no shame or fault in having a mental illness. That’s why I speak up.