It’s funny, when we talk about ourselves or our experiences, how tempting it is to lie or sugar coat the truth. When we talk to our family and friends about mental illness its easy to dumb down the facts. For them? Maybe.
For us? Definitely.
This is not really a ‘how to’ guide because, I’ll be honest, I haven’t even worked out the how to’s or how not to’s myself. Really, who am I to tell anyone how to do anything when it comes to their personal lives? Instead, this is me saying, hey, talking about this sucks, here’s some thoughts on how it could be better.
The stigma problem
Stigma. It’s ugly but present, and we can’t ignore the fact that it shapes these conversations and how the facts are perceived. It has been around the block for a while and gets its claws into your own perception of your mental illness, let alone anyone else’s.
While we’re making steps of progress towards removing the stigma around mental illness, we still have mountains to climb in reaching a level of worldwide understanding. Stigma makes any conversation around your own mental illness that much harder; it feeds the feelings of doubt and embarrassment we all experience, regardless of whether we should. It sucks the air from your mouth when you’re about to speak and makes you wonder, what the hell am I about to say?
There’s only one way to deal with an ugly wart like stigma and it’s difficult to achieve. Simply ignore it. Trivialise it and push past it because your mental illness is so much more than how you think it looks to the world. Your friends and family shouldn’t care about the world; they’ll only care about you and what you have to say. Speak as though the stigma doesn’t exist, speak about the personal side of your mental illness, what it means for you and your health. You don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else or the stories of other people, celebrities, or whatever other examples you’ve probably been frantically googling for years. This is your story, your journey, and it is you you’re here to talk about.
The privacy problem
People are private, I know I definitely am. People want to keep their personal lives personal, for their eyes-only. How do we know how much to reveal without compromising our own privacy? How much should we say so that they understand, without feeling like we have said too much? Is it detrimental to our wellbeing to reveal all? Will they understand it properly if we don’t explain every little detail?
The answer to this is that it’s different for everyone; you only need to share what you feel comfortable with. It is possible to find a boundary between telling people what they need to know in order to understand and support you, whilst keeping some of the more personal details to yourself. Some people will want to bear all and lay it all out on the table which can be cathartic, but it won’t be that easy for everyone.
Take your time, think about what you want to say and how you would like to say it. Research can be helpful; the NHS websites are a great tool for explaining particular mental illness in medical practical terms, and the official website associated to your particular struggles often have great advice on how to approach your family or even your GP for the first time. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is only one way to do this, or give you a list of what to say. That list is yours and yours alone, its up to you to create it your own way.
The lying problem
Unsurprisingly in this situation (as is also the case in many situations) lying is extremely unhelpful, especially when approaching health care professionals. Trust me, I’ve seen every episode of Pretty Little Liars at least three times and lying only complicates an already perplexing situation. People can’t help you if you lead them in the wrong direction, and your loved ones won’t understand what you’re going through if you aren’t telling the truth about what that is. If you are lying, it’s possible that you aren’t ready to share just yet and that’s okay. Take a step back and think about why you want to do this and why it is important to you.
The ‘how to’ and ‘who to’ problem
Who to tell is difficult and obviously personal. Tell people that you trust and those who you know will support you. Tell the people who are worried about you, who care about you and who have your back. Don’t feel the need to tell every man and his dog if you don’t want to; its no one else’s business what you’ve been through unless you feel they need to know or you want to tell them.
How to share is always going to be the most difficult and, honestly, so far I don’t even have my own answer. I mostly blurt it out randomly to my friends under the influence of alcohol then spend the next day panicking about what I’ve said or how I said it. Why, god why, did I say it in that way? Really it doesn’t matter. It’s out in the world, and so far, no judgement.
So if this wasn’t quite the Andie Anderson’s ‘How To Guide’ you were hoping for, sorry about that (and I’ll definitely be watching that later). But mostly this all boils down to two important things: one, people can surprise you if you give them a chance to understand what you are going through, and two, this is about you and your life, so tell it your way. There are no rules, you make those yourself, and doing so could even make positive steps towards your recovery. You make the rules, create your own ‘How To’.