I have found it very hard over the years to talk about my mental illness with others – and often because they don’t understand but often because of my own negative feelings towards myself.
When I was 17 I was diagnosed with an “anxiety and panic disorder“, often brought on by social situations. Back then, mental illness was a real stigma, but has it improved enough? If I tell someone I have “social anxiety”, they often think “Oh, she’s a bit shy then.” Growing up, in every single end of year report my teachers mentioned my shyness. Things like very quiet, doesn’t speak up, doesn’t ask questions, seems isolated, prefers to spend time alone, needs to gain confidence – my lack of social confidence and interaction was highlighted from a very young age, but growing up it was all attributed to being shy. As time went by it became worse for me and doing “normal” things like meeting a group of friends became harder and harder and harder until I hit breaking point and needed years of medication and therapy to become functional again.
When I was younger – and in fact even these days – I didn’t want to say to people. “Hi, I’m WelshMum, please accommodate my mental disability.” Even though it is a disability. If I was in a wheelchair I would not feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for a wheelchair friendly situation, so why do I – with a professionally diagnosed mental disability feel like I need to hide it? Like I can’t talk about it? Like asking for an accommodation such as a quiet location or an easily accessible exit wouldn’t be taken seriously? I don’t look physically ill – but if I have a panic attack I can’t be trapped in a crowd or I will have a full mental breakdown that can take weeks to recover from. If my anxiety gets bad, I can have serious digestive issues and need to use an immediate bathroom.
When I do tell friends and family, they often don’t understand because anxiety doesn’t sound like that bad a thing. We all get a little bit anxious. We all worry. In my case, they don’t see the weeks of sleepless nights, the jagged crying bouts, the frantic obsessive research about a situation. They don’t see the panic attacks where I can barely breathe, the nails bitten to the quick until they’re bleeding. They don’t see the restless pacing and mood swings or the drawer full of tablets. They see the end result – the facade that I cobble together and present to the world. The tough exterior. That’s my fault – I don’t show them the real me, because I’m afraid. Of rejection, of judgement, of horror or perhaps of someone simply not caring. I once told an employer about my problems and was told “So what, that’s not my problem. If you can’t do the job then you shouldn’t be here.” Of course that was a long time ago and perhaps things would be different now, but as a 19 year old at the time trying to struggle forward, it was a crushing blow.
Now I try to go out as much as possible, to live as full a life as possible and to push myself constantly out of my comfort zone. Doing this – along with the incredible support I’ve had from my husband and my mother – has helped me be independent, to be a functional member of society (most of the time). My mental health will always be a problem – I’ve learned to cope and manage it, but it always lurks beneath the surface, waiting for a crisis point to take over.
The older I get and the more society comes to accept mental health issues, I realize I shouldn’t be feeling these negative thoughts about myself. I didn’t ask to be made this way, but it is the way I am. I run a successful business – which I started because I couldn’t hold down a regular job with employers who simply didn’t understand my condition – and I have made every effort to treat the problem and I have tried my best to be a good friend, wife, family member and now mother. For so many years – decades – I viewed my mental health as something negative, holding me back, that needed to be hid from people lest they judge me.
So let them judge me. Those are not the type of people I want to care about anyway. People who would think less of someone for trying their best to cope with a problem – be it physical or mental, whatever it is. It’s still hard though, shrugging off the years of feeling ashamed and allowing myself to be vulnerable to the world – saying “This is me. I am broken in places, but I still work. Bear with me, we’ll get there.”
If you enjoyed this post please follow me to keep up to date, and I’d love to hear your opinion if you leave a comment. Have you ever felt like you need to hide something about yourself from others? If you told them, what sort of reaction did you get? Do you think mental health awareness is improving?