Whenever the thought of telling others about my mental illness entered my mind, I felt a wave of anxiety pass through me. My head began to pound, my heart sped up, my breathing became fast and shallow, almost like I was suffocating. If I didn’t catch it in time, the anxiety could lead to a full-blown panic attack or sudden and extreme fatigue, with my body collapsing in place. Not a pretty picture.
For 9 months, I had been suffering from a mood disorder characterized by high anxiety, sudden and extreme fatigue, and panic attacks. I really wanted to share much earlier. It would have felt great to be genuinely authentic with people in my life and not hide who I am. Plus, I would have been proud to contribute to overcoming the stigma against mental illness in our society, especially since this stigma impacts me on such a personal level.
Ironically, this very stigma against mental illness, combined with my own excessive anxiety response, made it very hard for me to share. I was really anxious about whether friends and acquaintances would turn away from me. I was also very concerned about the impact on my professional career of sharing publicly, due to the stigma in academia against mental illness, including at my own workplace, Ohio State University, as my colleague and fellow professor described in his article.
Still, I did eventually start discussing my mental illness with some very close friends who I was very confident would support me. And one conversation really challenged my mental map, in other words how I perceive reality, about sharing my story of mental illness.
My friend told me something that really struck me, namely his perspective about how great would it be if all people who needed professional help with their mental health actually went to get such help. One of the main obstacles, as research shows, is the stigma against mental health. We discussed how one of the best ways to deal with such stigma is for well-functioning people with mental illness to come out of the closet about their condition.
Well, I am one of these well-functioning people. I have a great job and do it well, I have wonderful relationships, and I participate in all sorts of civic activities. The vast majority of people who know me don’t realize I suffer from a mental illness. So I decided to come out to battle the stigma!
My goal is to publicize my mental illness as broadly as possible so that people can see that one can be a highly functioning member of society while still battling with mental illness daily. I am comfortable sharing that I take psychiatric drugs daily and see a therapist weekly. While suffering regularly from bouts of debilitating anxiety and fatigue, I still make it through life successfully.
I have even written in newspapers about my experience. My hope is that talking about myself will be one small step to fighting the stigma against mental illness. I also hope that it helps empower people to take steps to manage their emotional selves and take charge over their lives through intentional thinking.
Featured photo credit: Naser Khan/Flickr via flickr.com