“Hi, my name is Megan, and I am here for depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and self harm.”
Three nights each week I say those words to a group of 3-15 people. Sometimes, that is followed up with reading and answering a question “from the fishbowl” or sharing something random like my favorite ice cream flavor with the group. It always amazes me how easily those words fall from my mouth, how calm and free it makes me feel to share these things with people I only know by their first names, people I only see 3-9 hours each week. Sometimes, though, I feel like these people know me and understand me more than anyone else could in this world, more than family, friends or coworkers, more than I even know myself.
People are constantly complaining or sharing on social media about the problem with how our society views mental illness. Friends and family are all outraged with the stigmas that come with mental illness, the lack of knowledge and compassion, the inequality of it all. Yet a lot of these same people give the advice to be silent, to not speak up about our struggles, to lock everything down tight. I was advised to tell my boss nothing after each of my hospitalizations, I was scolded for posting daily affirmations and links about suicide prevention or blog posts I’ve written because it put my family at risk, I was told that people don’t understand or care to hear my whiny stories. Here’s the deal, though: How does anything change if we aren’t more open about our mental illnesses? Will society just magically become more accepting of mental illness if we all hide our demons in the shadows and only speak of them in hushed tones in the “safe spaces” in our psychiatrists’ offices? We encourage people to share their cancer survival stories, their devastating stories of loss, their stories of hope and pride in overcoming other illnesses, but why is mental illness any different?
Mental illness knows no limits; anyone can be diagnosed with a mental illness. It is just that, though; a diagnosis. It’s not a label, it’s not a defining factor of who we are, it doesn’t make anyone a monster. It’s just an illness like the flu or cancer. I am a mother, wife, teacher and an average middle class American citizen living paycheck to paycheck… and I have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am married to a man who is just shy of having a genius-level IQ, a father, husband, son and a computer guru… with Bipolar II Disorder. We both are normal, functional, productive and successful, but I’ve also been hospitalized three times for suicidal ideations with a plan, and my husband has been hospitalized once for a major panic attack.. None of this makes either of us a “danger to society.” None of this makes either of us bad people. We just each have illnesses that require medication and care from professionals.
I’ve had some recent moments of frustration with people telling me that I was putting my family’s livelihood in danger by being open about my mental health. I decided to take a break from Facebook, I made my blog private and I started just writing in my journal instead. Here’s the deal, though: As a teacher and a lifelong learner, I think that we should all be open to sharing and learning from each other just as much as we are open to learning from a textbook. I also think that honesty is very important, and as humans, we owe it to each other to always be open and honest, even when it may not be easy or seem like the best idea. I took the first step towards this honesty yesterday by sitting down with my bosses in their office and telling them where I’ve been for the last 8 days and why I was there. Do you know what my bosses said? It wasn’t, “Well, you are unfit to be around children… you’re fired!”
They said, “Thank you for being honest with us. We are so glad you made the choice to put your life first and get help. We really appreciate you sharing with us. What can we do to help you? Take care of yourself first and foremost because we need you around…the students love you and miss you.”
Sure, I could still end up being dismissed at the end of my contract in May, but you know what? At least I was honest with myself and about myself. Mental illness is part of who I am, but it does not define the person that I am. Shouldn’t we all be allowed to be comfortable with the skin we’re in? I feel like sharing that I have Borderline Personality Disorder is just as comparable to me sharing that I’m bisexual; it is a part of who I am, just like my red hair and blue eyes. It’s all part of what makes me, well, me. There’s no shame in that; I shouldn’t feel ashamed of who I am, and I shouldn’t have to hide it to make others feel “more comfortable.”
I won’t be sharing this with my students, but I would love for us to get to a place where we could share our struggles with mental illness with those around us. We all need to know that we’re not alone. We all need to know that it’s okay to have struggles. We all need to know that we are complex, beautiful humans. We all should be allowed the joy of being free and open, the pleasure of being comfortable with ourselves and safe to share ourselves with others. Suffering from depression and anxiety doesn’t make me a monster and it doesn’t make me dangerous to others or less human. I’m treating my illness with medication and professional care in the forms of both individual and group therapy, but I don’t love my children, my husband, my friends, my family, my students or my job any less because of this illness. This illness just means that sometimes I don’t love myself, and sometimes, I feel compelled to close off from the world. It means that sometimes I hurt myself because I don’t love myself as much as I should, but I’m working on this day by day, one step at a time. I hope that this can help someone else feel comfortable in the skin they are in, I hope this can help some of us feel more open to sharing what we need.. I hope that, someday, we as a society can be more accepting of mental illness and more open to discussing it. The best way to prevent some of the horrors of our world is by being willing to talk, share knowledge, and recognize our struggles before they reaches critical mass. We have to share. We have to be open. We have to start talking about mental illness.