People are fond of telling me how great it is that I’m able to speak up for those that do not have a voice. In this case, they are referring to other people with mental health disorders as the voiceless. I don’t think that people who have trouble advocating for themselves are voiceless. I just think they haven’t found their voice yet. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately as I’ve struggled to find new words to string together for a compelling blog post. I’ve found that I put tremendous pressure on myself to speak for the entire community when really all I can be expected to do is tell my story and hope that others can take something from it.
I became an outspoken advocate almost by accident. When I was released on furlough during an inpatient stay in 2005, Facebook still had a part of the personal profile that allowed students to list their “summer plans”. In my post-psychosis stupor and anti-psychotic haze, I went ahead and listed “recovering from a psychotic episode.” What did I care? I did not/could not process the consequences. As a result, my disorder and my struggles with mental health issues have never been a secret. I’m incredibly thankful for that momentary lapse in judgment. Living with bipolar disorder is hard enough without having to hide it. If no one knew, I couldn’t count on friends, classmates, and professors for understanding. If no one knew, I’d forever be anxious, scrambling to cover for manic behavior or exhausting myself pretending to be fine when I barely could get out of bed in the morning.
I’ve often heard people in the mental health community say, “I can’t tell anyone. I don’t want people to know. I don’t know how they will take it. Everyone I’ve told so far has dismissed me as crazy or dismissed my issue as not a real health problem.” I get that. I really do and I completely respect you if you make the choice to live privately. However, I do urge you to reconsider. We can pass laws that prevent discrimination based on mental health issues. We can shout until we are blue in the face raising awareness. Until more people are talking openly about the realities of living with mental health issues, we will not win the hearts and minds of those who lack understanding. How can we possibly expect them to understand if we don’t educate them about it? If the only image that comes to mind when people mention mental illness is that of a violent madman, we will never make more than halting gains. It can get exhausting feeling like you’re everyone’s mental health tutor, but it is a price we must pay if we want progress.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about me and this isn’t about you. This is about the 14-year-old experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time, who doesn’t know where to turn and just feels hopeless and so different from everybody else. It’s about the 32-year-old struggling with anorexia who doesn’t know where to turn for help and whose friends are afraid to intervene because they don’t really know what to do. It’s about setting an example. This doesn’t it mean it won’t be hard. It doesn’t mean that the challenges of living with a mental health issue will magically go away. It only means that we owe it to ourselves and for all those who come after us to do all we can to make it better.
You don’t have to make a proclamation to the world in order to find your voice. Take small steps, like talking with friends or family members, co-workers or classmates. Challenge yourself to have one difficult conversation. Just know that you have a community of support here.