Back in 2015, I was a complete mess, and I did everything I could to hide it. I was still having panic attacks regularly, and they would be brought on by the slightest provocation. But I felt, working in tech, that I had to be quiet about it, and just let things pass and things would get better if I ignored them.
One day a coworker did a thing that triggered a pretty big panic attack. It wasn’t anything malicious on his part, just a cavalier, morbid joke in gestural form that happened to tread upon one of my biggest triggers.
I felt awful, and I wanted to keep from feeling that way again.
So I messaged him on our work chat, and told him that the gesture he made happens to be a huge trigger for me and I was having a pretty major panic attack as a result. And his response was incredibly helpful: he didn’t realize, he understood, and he wouldn’t do it again. And he stuck to that.
Over time I got more open about my issues, and the more open I got the more eye-opening it became. I’d talk about my anxiety problems with people, and their response would be, “Oh, you seem really calm and collected! I had no idea.” And then they’d open up to me about their issues too, or they’d talk about a partner or relative or friend with something similar, and we’d both come away from the conversation with a better understanding of each other and how we aren’t alone.
I came to realize that the reason I wasn’t talking about it is just that there’s a lot of stigma around it, and then I began to notice a lot of other things where the stigma about mental health discussions led to isolation and more net misery for everyone.
If I’d been able to talk about my focus issues, maybe I’d have gotten diagnosis and treatment for my ADHD sooner.
If I’d been able to talk about my chronic pain openly, maybe I’d have gotten diagnosis and treatment for fibromyalgia sooner.
If I’d been able to talk about my gender identity, maybe I’d have been able to transition sooner.
How many of the people around me were suffering because of their own issues that they didn’t feel safe talking about?
How many deeply-ingrained cultural issues are because of people refusing to show “weakness” and instead attacking people for not being able to hide things as well as them?
How much better could we all be if we, as a society, weren’t so insistent on showing a mask of perfection on top of our crumbling interiors?
I love that there has been a cultural shift towards talking about this stuff. Steven Universe has been very influential on me in that respect. So has being able to go online and find a support network of people who are willing to talk about problems, and point out how messed up it is that we can’t talk about problems with each other.
I wish mental health care were more accessible to everyone. I wish everyone had a therapist, and I also wish we didn’t all need one. If we can all support each other, maybe we can get closer to that world.
Yes, there will always be people who will exploit others' vulnerabilities, and there will always be people who refuse to understand others. There will be those who see these things as a weakness, as something to exploit or a reason to be unworthy of association. I’d rather know about them sooner, so that I can avoid them. And the sooner society as a whole shifts towards mindset, the better off society will be for it. Because the true strength is in helping each other out. A chain has a weakest link, but a mesh? Way more resilient.
I’ve known people with various mental health issues that go into destructive cycles of denial and escalation. Bipolar disorder seems to be especially bad for this. Of the people I know who are bipolar, there seem to be two major categories: ones who see it as something shameful to hide, and ones who see it as a part of themselves that needs to be managed. The people I know in one category are thriving, even despite their occasional setbacks; the ones in the other are caught up in a vicious cycle of denial and relapse. You can probably guess which is which.
And when people only know about mental health issues from the extreme, destructive cases, of course there will be a huge stigma attached to them! That perpetuates the cycle!
So, I am open about my mental health because I want to normalize people being open about mental health. It’s good for everyone.