One of the more difficult things I have ever had to do was admit to myself that I had a Psychiatric Disorder. Harder still was learning how to tell others that were close to me what I was going through.
Sadly, having any sort of Psychological Disorder carries some amount of stigma with it. Over the past few years, as more and more people are coming forward with Depression and anxiety disorders, the stigma for these disorders has decreased. Other disorders such as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder are still so misunderstood by others that we feel the need to hide our illnesses.
There is one problem with that… hiding the illness can keep us from addressing it. This means that the problems often go untreated.
So, How Do You Avoid the Stigma?
Sadly, you can’t always escape it. Some people are going to judge you and you may see close friends take a big step backwards in your relationship. I have found that these steps back are generally temporary while my own friends try to make sense of what is going on. Sometimes however, they turn their back completely and friendships die.
You can’t avoid abandonment by a judgmental person, but you can decide to share less with those people who may appear judgmental. It is important to consider some of the reasons a person might appear judgmental in response to the news of your mental illness. They may simply be frightened by something they do not understand. One should take into consideration that the very nature of mental illness creates uncertainty in the mind of a loved one. How will they know what to expect? What will be the parameters of your behavior… and how might it affect them? Which brings up perhaps the most common issue of all, the issue of stigma.
Mental illness because of its great stigma feels a threat to many, on various levels. Will your condition affect them, or rub off on the image they wish to perceive by being associated with you? Will your condition in anyway become a personal burden or responsibility to them? Personal self-esteem levels of the individual friend/loved one may often determine how they will respond to these issues. It may also be possible that a friend/loved one may have their own mental illness to cope with and are unwilling to discuss it with you, and your strength and willingness to share may be a blow to their self-esteem, or in the opposite direction, a threat to their choice to remain closeted about their own struggle.
In any case, an option is to try and educate them. Put yourself in their shoes, what if they had approached you with similar news? Sending an email with some links to where they may learn more about mental illness and your disorder. They may surprise you with their interest to understand.
I myself have seen a few friends vanish completely, and others pull back some while they try and figure things out. The good news is that most of those who pulled back have since accepted me as they once did.
Preparing to Talk
Whether you are talking to your family, friends, or co-workers you will need to anticipate any questions that might come up. This not only helps them to understand, but it shows them you are perfectly able to manage a normal life whatever your condition may be. Educate yourself about your condition so you can educate others as needed.
Family and friends will need to know what they can do to help, while co-workers will need to know how your diagnosis will affect your work. Try and keep your answers appropriate to the situation.
Who, When, and How Much?
Deciding whom to share this part of your life with is sort of like buying a car. One thing to remember, cars have warranties… friendships do not. Once you share something with a friend or family member, it is out there for examination. You cannot say “forget I said that.” You need to think about all the options and take a few test drives before you make the decision to buy.
Take a good measuring look at the person you are thinking of talking to:
- Is this someone you can tell everything to, or are there things you should hold back?
- What sort of personality do they have?
- How much do you trust them?
- Have they held secrets for you in the past?
Remember the test drive I mentioned? Well start out by sharing a small part of your situation. Letting them know you’re having a rough time or have had rough times in the past can often show how open a person is to hearing more.
Something like: “things have been sort of rough for me recently.”
Could be met with anything from silence – not a good sign they are open to talking, to a casual comment, or a friendly and concerned response. Move slowly and be ready for any possibility.
Make sure both you and whomever you decide to share things with are in safe places both physically and mentally before you move beyond your test drive, and remember you decide how much to share. They may prompt you for more than you are comfortable telling them at that moment – simply explain to them that you do not feel comfortable yet, they will understand.
The most important thing to remember is that you are in control of how much you tell, do not let anyone manipulate you into sharing more than you feel comfortable sharing.