I’m pretty well known for being an open book.
I talk openly about mental health in public spaces in particular, because I think it helps other people feel more able to. No big agenda; just a hope for a reciprocal sense of freedom.
I’m probably very different to quite a lot of people with mental health ‘stuff’ going on though. They either don’t have the spoons to vocalise their deal, or enjoy privacy, or feel too ashamed to detail and discuss what’s going on for them.
Stigma is a big deal. You can read a thousand blogs on the topic, and musings from government and not-for-profit organisations, saying how destructive it is (and yes, it is).
I see it in my friendship networks. The biggest form of it I see in my reasonably politically correct, kind, thoughtful friendship networks is the expectation of “polite holding back”. You know, the concept that talking about how shit everything is, is self absorbed and gauche. I call it “the awkward, awkward crab dance.” You can both and give and receive the crab dance.
This form of stigma is what stops people from posting on Facebook at 4am that they’re dreadfully lonely and depressed and kind of want to die. It stops people from saying “I just had a panic attack” to a friend and describing how awful it was. It stops people from talking in detail – or even superficial sketches – about their recent stay in hospital. It means we’re forced to laugh off, and make light of, things that make our lives really hard.
The downside of being oh-so-aloof is that nobody really knows what’s going on with you, and you can’t access solidarity and empathy to the extent that you may need to – and sometimes simple things like being understood can make a bad day just a touch more bearable. People can and do implode under the heaviness of having to keep their mental ills to themselves.
For all of my openness, there are things I don’t talk about. When I have a bad turn, I tend to censor the worst of it, even though I’m pretty damn open. I too feel the pressure to keep the dirty details out of conversations, both online and off. I don’t talk about self injury. I don’t talk about suicidal plans. I keep it light, or if I can’t, I spin it just enough so I’m not de-friended by people sick of my “whining” or freaked out by my “overshare”.
That’s the thing – if you make the choice to share, there will always be fools ready to roll their ignorant eyes at you, and accuse you of being an attention seeker. Well, of course you are – human beings need attention in times of ill health and mental pain.
The critics are probably fighting hard battles too, if we’re honest. Telling you you’re less for speaking is a good way of bolstering their sense of being strong. Of getting through stuff without “needing” feedback and care. That’s how they cope.
I think we can turn this thing around though. Here’s a few simple suggestions and changes you can make so people feel more able to speak about how they’re going:
- Acknowledge that people need to talk openly about their health, and talking about a broken arm is just as valid as talking about a really bad stint of depression, or thoughts of self harm. Or whatever it is.
- If someone broaches something, don’t be the jerk that says nothing/shames them for sharing/defriends them/leaves the room (unless of course the content is triggering is in some way for you).
- Awkward silences are better filled with “wow, that sounds really hard” or any other affirmation of what’s just been said. DON’T CHANGE THE TOPIC. DICK MOVE.
- Tell people you are proud of them and love them when they do chat about things. Encourage there to be a next time.
- Ask how people are and really listen to the answer.
- If you can’t be there for someone cos you’re low on spoons, say so. People will often think you’re weirded out by their stuff unless you provide some other explanation. If you can, redirect them to another friend, or a family member, or a forum, or a professional counselling service.
- Change how you think about mental health. Think people just need to toughen up? Think people should learn how to be still and quiet? Generally all about imposing your own way of coping on others? Then put down the platitude and back away, because those suckers are weapons. Change your mind first and foremost.
I could make that a ten point list so it’s neat and tied up in a bow, but according to my cousin Sammy, seven is a number of power. I’m also lazy.
Anyway, let’s make the new year a year of more engagement with each other’s real lives. More big cuddles, invitations to coffee, visits to hospital, love on facebook walls, emails asking what’s up, genial chats about medication and histories. More dressing each other’s wounds, metaphorically and hey, if needed – literally.
Less awkward “I’m a repressive jerk” crab dancing. Ok? Got it?