Telling someone that you have a mental illness is, well….scary.
After 20 years of living with bipolar disorder, I still find myself in positions where I hesitate. I hesitate sharing my diagnosis; saying those words, letting it out. I fear the electricity in the room will change, and the light in which that person sees me may dim or burn out.
Sure, I typically stand strong and thrive in the face of challenge. But then it happens; I hesitate. I hold back. So how do I move beyond this? How do I find my voice? I use this as a beautiful reminder that growth is standing just a shallow step beneath that fear. This is where courage is reborn.
My suggestion? Spill the beans. You deserve the freedom and empowerment that comes along with it. So, here are 6 things I’ve learned along the way that may prepare you for a variety of responses.
Remember, regardless of how the other person reacts, YOU have incredible courage. That courage will continue to blossom and grow and you’ll find a place within yourself where you’re authentically proud of how far you’ve come. Hold on to that place and visit it often.
1. Prepare To Do Some Myth Busting
It’s no secret that some people have very little (accurate) information about mental illness. This in and of itself isn’t necessary a problem. However, it is problematic when they’ve been the disadvantaged recipients of societal stigmas, biases, and untruths.
When people don’t have a reliable source to learn about mental illness from, it is understandable that they may buy into these myths and stereotypes. This not only stigmatizes those of us living with a mental illness, but it allows fear to thrive and this shuts out the space needed to talk honestly and openly about mental health.
Use this as an opportunity. Take advantage of their lack of knowledge and provide awareness and education so they can hop over the fence into the yard of understanding and acceptance.
2. You Are the Author
There is no need to regurgitate every high, low, and in between that you’ve experienced while you are sharing appetizers over dinner. The blessing in sharing your story is that it is ALL YOURS.
At whatever pace you are comfortable with, you can unveil the pieces of your life without rush or pressure. I find that spilling the beans in a cliffs note format opens the door for the other person to get involved.
They can ask questions. They can validate. They can learn. Their response is a beautiful indication of whether this person wants to be invested in your life and support you in the future.
3. Realize That It Can Be Triggering
Digging back through the pain and tragedy of your life is often painful. Reliving upsetting memories can send you back to that exact place and time. The feelings, the smells, the sounds become real again, and the emotions associated with those moments may return.
This can be avoided when you think through what you want to share before you open your mouth. What topics are off limits? Do you feel emotionally safe reliving these experiences? Are you able to recognize when discussing your illness feels too heavy and it’s time to put down the weights?
4. Take Care of Yourself Afterwards
Self care, self care, self care. This is an active, ongoing process of taking care of yourself emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. You don’t step on a treadmill and sprint like a maniac without stretching. You warm up your muscles.
Once you’ve completed your sweat sesh, you give yourself time to cool down. You’re kind to your body because you’ve put it through something strenuous. Treat your mind the same way. Spend time afterwards doing something that calms or fulfills you.
Process your thoughts, feelings and experience with a friend, take a nap, read a book, get outdoors…relax. Set up a plan of the people or activities in your life that will offer support once you’ve spilled the beans. This is your bubbly jacuzzi after putting in miles on the treadmill.
5. Expect the Unexpected
After you disclose your experiences, the other person might…do nothing. Personally, this has been my biggest fear. This fear was born after I spent months with my psychiatrist “preparing my speech” for when I finally opened up to my 2 best friends after I’d spent a week in a psychiatric hospital.
My trembling voice carried words that were humiliating as I went over the script of what I felt comfortable sharing. As for them? They stared. They said nothing…and did nothing.
So as we prepare to openly talk to family, friends, employers or new partners, we are doing ourselves a favor if we recognize that they might not respond in the way that we need or hope for. They could laugh. They could walk away. They could judge. They could do nothing.
Let this be your indication to the importance this person serves in your life, and their willingness to be an ally and positive support in your recovery.
6. Be Prepared for the “I Have a Friend” Response
Guess what? Mental illness is incredibly common!
I cannot begin to count how many times people have responded to my experiences with, “my brother, my wife, my best friend, etc.” This is great news! Not only have you opened the door for continued conversation, but you’re connecting yourself to other people who also live with a mental illness.
You can be a beacon of hope to others who may still be struggling. You have taken the lead and shown that mental illness isn’t the driver of your life.
You’re sitting tall behind the wheel, seat belt securely fastened, with bright eyes on the exciting road ahead.
Erin Callinan, MSW
Consultant, Speaker, Author
Beneath The Brave