I love the fact that people have different things to say about this! Should you go public about your mental illness online? I think only you can answer that. But there are a few things to consider, so let's talk about them.
It goes without saying that once you "come out" with anything online, there's no going back. You really have to know why you want to do it, and it's not a decision to be made lightly. Whether you like it or not, it's going to affect the way people view you. And not just friends and family, but work colleagues, current and future employers, and romantic partners. Even complete strangers will want to have their say.
Can you handle it? It's not a case of whether it's right that people are going to make assumptions about you, it's just reality. You will be judged. Why? Because people don't really 'get' mental illness. But then, that's part of the reason that so many of us want to talk about it. We want it out in the open. We don't want to hide part of ourselves. We want to be accepted for who we are, warts and all.
I don't have warts. I have a diagnosis of cyclothymia, which is a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum. It sounds scary, but it's not. It's not even that interesting, to be honest. But it does affect me, and I want to be open about that, so I share my story.
What is it like to be diagnosed with a mental illness?
When I received my diagnosis I experienced a lot of conflicting emotions, most of which were my response to wanting desperately to understand myself.
First I was in denial, then I felt fear that became anger, betrayal, outrage, and then defensiveness. This morphed into an insatiable hunger to absorb every ounce of information I could find about my disorder, so that I could talk about it in an informed and authoritative way. I was going to educate the world about cyclothymia. I was going to own this beast!
I decided to deal with my confusion by starting an anonymous blog. Being a writer, this was the only thing that made sense to me. I was terrified of being found out, so everything had to be done secretly, a new anonymous email address, a new blog account... nothing could link back to me. I wasn't ready to share my story with anyone who might actually know me, but I needed to share my story with someone. And so strangers it was.
I quickly discovered that this wasn't enough. I constantly felt like there was an enormous pink elephant in the room wherever I went. The pink elephant trampled all over my new anonymous blog making a mockery of it. It taunted me with it's swinging trunk - You want to be an advocate for mental illness but you're hiding behind an anonymous blog - You're a fraud!
I had struggled with my sense of identity my whole life, and I was learning that a lot of my struggle had been down to the effects that cyclothymia has been having on my personal and professional life. In a strange way, this new diagnosis was serving to explain a lot. How could I go on being me in my real life without embracing this newly discovered part of my identity?
Some people don't like to "identify" as their disorder, and I totally understand that. I am not my disorder. My disorder has definitely been a big part of who I have become though. And I say this in the most positive way possible. Cyclothymia became a way for me to understand and explain my everyday struggle. My diagnosis provided me with an incredible sense of validation. It was the missing piece to my puzzle. I kind of needed it to be part of my narrative.
Will going public about mental illness impact your professional life?
I have been actively looking for employment for a while. I won't tell you exactly how long, but I will say it has been long enough. I'm tired now, can somebody please give me a job?
Freelancing is great, but I need income stability, and I feel that working for a company will provide me with the opportunity to grow as a professional and develop my career. I would also love to be part of something that's bigger than just myself. Freelancing has many benefits, but working independently is isolating, and the added stress of not knowing where my next gig is coming from is stressful. For someone who suffers from a mood disorder, stress should be avoided like the plague.
Most of the job applications have a section where they ask you a bunch of personal questions about your religion, sexuality, culture, and disabilities. Often you don't have to disclose information but sometimes it doesn't appear to be a choice. They all seem to suggest that stating your disability will be in your favour, and that if you meet the essential job criteria, you will be guaranteed an interview. Whenever I have disclosed my mental health status I have never been invited for an interview. So I am not sure what to think about that.
I have made a brave and positive decision to build my brand as a writer around the fact that I live with a mental illness. Any prospective employer will immediately see this because it is integrated into my whole online presence as a professional. I don't attempt to hide it. As far as I am concerned I have nothing to hide. Has this impacted me professionally? I honestly don't know. I'd like to think not, but I suspect it may have.
Does this bother me? Yes and no. I want to be taken seriously for my professional skills, and I want to be appreciated as an authentic and genuine individual too. I probably wouldn't be so open about my mental health, or lack of it, if I thought it was unrelated to my work. My disorder does affect my work though, and I can only get the support I need if people know I need it.
What does that support look like? Well I don't know, because I haven't been employed by a company since receiving my diagnosis. I do know that there needs to be an open dialogue about mental health at least, and I am more than happy to answer any questions if it helps people to help me.
What happens after you come out about your mental illness?
When you start to talk about your mental illness to people who don't struggle with a mental illness themselves, you take on a new role in life. You become the teacher.
Most of the time, talking about your mental illness isn't about helping you, it's about helping them, and also helping them to help you. Sure, people can go away and do their research, but they will never know what your personal experience of mental illness is unless you talk to them about it.
You may find that people start to treat you differently. Most people mean well, but they just don't really understand what you need from them, and their "help" can come off as painfully patronising.
Other people may feel resentful towards you and they won't want to understand. You have to learn to accept that. There's not much you can do to help people who don't want to be helped. You must develop a thicker skin to protect yourself, and learn to be empathetic to others.
You may actually find yourself giving more to other people in terms of understanding and support than they are able to give to you.You have to learn to let go of the people who are not supportive, and surround yourself with people who genuinely care.
But most of all you have to practice a lot of self love, and be willing to take more responsibility for yourself than you have ever taken in your life!
Be prepared for upset. Strangers in particular can be very hurtful and you have to learn to block out what doesn't feed your soul. You may feel discriminated against both personally and professionally. It's not right, but at this moment in time it kind of comes with the territory, and you have to be prepared for the worst. But also prepare to be surprised by people's kindness.
I have come to terms with the fact that being open about my diagnosis means I am cutting off certain opportunities. But I know that I have to be confident enough to believe in myself and trust that good things will happen for me when the time is right. I just have to keep working hard at what I do, and be persistent. I now have to work harder than most people, because I am not only up again my competitors, I am also up against the stigma. But that's okay, because I'm standing up for what I believe in, and I feel proud of my achievements, no matter how small they may seem.
My bottom line is that just because you have received a diagnosis for mental illness, it doesn't mean you have to tell the world. You should do what's right for you, and for the majority of people privacy is a means of strength.
I am just one of those odd few that finds strength through my vulnerability. If I've got nothing to hide, then there's no fear of being found out. I have a lot to offer, there is certainly more to me than my madness. Take me as you find me, and for now I'll just carry on taking what I can get.
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