Sharing my mental health diagnosis can be a really challenging dilemma. There are pros and cons to sharing in terms of the ways conversations go and the way people treat me. It’s been an ongoing decision I’ve had to grapple with repeatedly throughout my sixteen year mental health journey.
In the beginning, I really resonated with diagnostic terms. I wanted a term for everything I was experiencing and it felt helpful to have. Over time, I still believe it’s helpful to have terms to describe what each phenomenological ailment is. However, many people would disagree. Many people would state that they’re not wanting psychiatric terms ascribed to their mental health condition, and I definitely resonate with this as well. I sometimes use psychiatric terms to describe ailments of my mental health condition and many times I don’t. As a peer specialist I use them sometimes but I mostly don’t and I’ve found it’s helped to reshape my identity in a healthier way. The words we talk about ourselves and others with shape our identity and I’ve found it important to be cautious with language and that language is not innocent. This idea of language not being innocent is really essential. Language does have major effects on people, on our identities, and on how culture is shaped within our workplaces, our lives, and the world.
At work, I’m a peer specialist, and being a peer specialist means being open about my mental health condition. However, there’s no mandate to directly share my diagnosis with everyone and I have control over what I do and don’t want to share. However, I’ve noticed as soon as I mention I’m a peer specialist this sometimes has had a major effect on people. On the inpatient units I work on, some clients immediately gravitate towards me and it makes it easier for them to talk to me. People get a sense of safety hearing I’m a peer specialist and that I’m there for them.
However, sometimes with staff, the conversations immediately shift when people hear I’ve had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There’s an awkwardness that occurs where people don’t know how to talk to me and they get nervous and fearful. Furthermore, if I share my diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the conversation shifts even further in the direction of stigma and otherness and people are no longer able to see me for who I am. Even after having read those diagnoses, I imagine as a reader you may have felt a shift as well. You might have felt some tenseness in your forehead and in your body and you might have been put to a higher level of alert. These are sentiments that are ingrained in multitudes of people across the world because of the stigma that exists in global cultures. This is the unconscious bias that exists within you and within many people. As soon as the label is mentioned these negative sentiments are triggered and all the thoughts and negative associations that are connected to these labels are too, and they make their way into peoples thoughts, actions, and being thus clouding their ability to see people for who they are. The cloudiness and degree to which this happens for people varies per person.
So, when I think of these reactions, I wonder who I can share my mental health diagnosis with. Having this experience on a daily basis at work really drives home the fact that the world isn’t fully at a place where people can see me for who I am, and not judge me for a condition that has very little effect on me at this point in my life.
Over the years, I’ve been worried to tell friends about my mental health condition. When out socializing, I have a group of friends who mostly know about the condition I have and it’s much easier to relate to them. I find when people know the diagnostics it puts me much more at ease while I’m with them and I feel safer. I feel like these are people who accept me and who I don’t have to fearful or be weary of. However, when we’re out with other friends and meeting new people, there are many people who don’t know about the condition. I’ve learned the art of equivocality in terms of talking about my work and other mental health related experiences in ways that don’t divulge my mental health diagnoses. I am sometimes open to letting people know I’ve been through things but I really tend to feel a shift when the diagnostic terms come up.
However, equivocality is a tricky art to practice and it’s reaching a point where I don’t want to have to hide things about myself that should just be commonly accepted. I wonder if I would be giving up friends and precluding people from my life by being upfront about my mental health condition. Part of me feels I only want people in my life who can accept me but there’s another part that just gravitates to people in general and I don’t want to push people away before they get a chance to know me. Many times when people have known me for a while and then I tell them the condition they’re able to still see me for who I am and accept me but there’s no chance of this if I preclude them from the start with disclosure.
One of the difficulties of not being transparent is that people think I’m within their group of people in the world. This just means that they expect they can disparage people with mental health conditions on any level they’d like, because it’s not discernible to them that I’ve been dealing with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for sixteen years. It doesn’t appear in my demeanor, my facial expressions, or in my socialization anymore. This can be a very painful process hearing people rip into me and others who have had mental health conditions, and for fear of not wanting them to know I have a condition I have to hide my truest sentiments which in these moments are the desire to push back and educate people so they have better awareness about what having a mental health diagnosis truly means.
Another difficulty of this is that I’m proud that I’ve had a mental health condition and I see it as a strength that I’ve gotten through the majority of it and I’m doing really well. However, some people don’t see it that way. They can take a deficits-based approach as opposed to realizing how much strength, fortitude, character, and resources we have all developed having lived with mental health conditions. My only worry about being transparent with people in the beginning of meeting them is that they won’t give me a chance. Especially with dating, I’ve found that I can’t be transparent from the start, which is a hard basis to start a relationship on. I try telling women that I’m a peer specialist and the next natural question leads to me divulging I’ve had a mental health condition and this shuts down conversations and ends relationships before they start. I also know that I don’t want to be with anyone who can’t get past diagnostic terms and just see me for my true self, but it has been a very isolating and othering experiencing that feels exhausting every time I go through it. It hasn’t been everyone I’ve dated but it’s happened a number of times.
There is also the component that my mental health condition is not the most important thing people need to know about me, and that many people would consider that private health information. I think for a while, I used to think that I had to be open about everything I’ve been through as this was a form of honesty. However, as I’m healing more from what I’ve been through and I’m able to better accept all the trauma and adversity I’ve dealt with, I feel much less pressure to share this with others. I’m no longer searching for acceptance from others as I’m gaining it from myself. It doesn’t feel like it needs to come out as much anymore or be on the table with a girlfriend.
I used to feel like I wanted to share everything I’ve been through with a partner whereas now I debate that, and there are many experiences I would rather not share. For years I was in a place where I wanted to just dig into all the most painful things I had been through because they were affecting me deeply. However, I’m realizing that I don’t want to do this anymore and that relationships should be fun. I also realize as I accept the terrible things I’ve been through better and some of the mistakes I made during episodes that I don’t need someone else to accept these things for me, especially given they were not things I could control.
There’s also an element to not sharing my diagnosis where I want to just escape the mental health world altogether when I’m out with friends and on dates. Although it is my work and it is very central to my life, it feels great to just get away from mental health conversations and to just focus on being a person in the world, and not having my deficits mentioned at all or having to talk about difficult things.
The other side of me is working towards a place where I can be open with everyone but it doesn’t always make sense to do so. Many situations are meant to be positive and cheerful and mentioning my mental health condition just saps the mood and brings people down. So, overall, I think this dilemma is still very subjective and I’m not sure if I have answers for it yet, although I want to be open with people and I want to be accepted for my full self, but I also know not everyone is going to be able to do that. However, I’ve found that there are a good majority of people in my life who do accept me and I worry far less about acceptance as I grow older.
Photo credit: Shutterstock