Mental health denial from loved ones and its impact

Patrice John-Baptiste

I’d like to share a personal experience with mental health denial I really didn’t expect and how it impacted my route to recovery.

While my first mental health blog spoke about coming to terms with my diagnosis, there were parts too raw to cover at the time. Here I’ll share initial reactions from friends and family and my response. My next mental health blog will cover the significant progress since the last update. So imagine this as a spin off from part 1.

Image credit: the

Telling the first person was the easiest

I didn’t discover my mental health condition on my own. My brother was the person who urged me to see my GP after disclaiming “Sis, you have anxiety. You need to see your GP. I’m sorry, I’ve had enough.” Be it blunt, he’s skilled at kicking me into gear without hesitation. I obeyed and was diagnosed. He was the first person I told and his response was “I’m proud of you.” Those words meant everything in that moment. Like a hug from Baymax in Big Hero 6 (brilliant film, gotta watch it). I felt so exposed and it gave me the courage to tell others.

Casual conversations with friends

I spent a month introducing friends to my condition. Was usually a casual, “How are you?” “I’ve been diagnosed with..” “How are you finding it…” it was surprisingly easy when treated like a normal conversation to have. Most had an encounter with mental health so we exchanged stories and moved on to the next conversation.

Listening to everyone’s varied accounts encouraged me to speak out about coming to terms with my diagnosis. A group of friends reviewed my draft blog and encouraged me to publish it.

I needed to validate I was doing the right thing because there were so many thoughts screaming not to.

Their support worked wonders. Terrified, I published the blog and felt a part of me was rebuilding, brick by brick, with every conversation had.

My best friend came clean about her own mental health a few weeks after I revealed mine. She finally found the courage to speak about it aloud. Although by this time I already suspected and we laughed it off. I felt the same pride my brother felt when she shared her progress. It has made us closer and more open. We vowed to never answer with “I’m fine” again and had daily video call check-ins so we couldn’t hide behind emojis. Since then we’ve supported each other through a whirlwind of family deaths, breakups, breakdowns and survived them all.

My cousin opened up to me too about her journey. We spoke about the things we discovered and the love hate relationship with have with our spinning minds. Being open built a small support network.

Not everyone was receptive. Feeling as vulnerable as I did, I really wasn’t prepared for it…

Telling mum, the counsellor…

My mother and I are very close. Our minds are in tune and love anything related to psychology, development and culture. As someone trained to counsel people, it was hard to tell her as I knew she’d psychoanalyse the crap out of it and I just wanted her to be mum.

I sought advice from a local mental health community I joined and they advised to be honest and let her respond the way she needs to. I did. And she psychoanalysed the crap out of it. Followed by 10 links to local support groups, articles and counselling centres she demanded I contact. She didn’t ask whether I had contacted any or if I even wanted to (I had contacted them). I felt like she had turned me into a victim. Perhaps she thought I was drowning and she needed to save me with a fleet of rubber dinghies. It was overbearing and I snapped.

In her world this traumatic thing had just happened to me but in reality I’d had a month to figure it out. We were in different places. In that moment she was trying to be mum.

We made peace after reflecting. I asked her to put the counselling aside and to be mum in a way that no one else could. She agreed and we identified the guilt she felt because she hadn’t diagnosed it herself.

It made me realise that telling someone you love about your mental health doesn’t just affect you, it also affects them.

I learnt this with the two great men in my life too.

Denial was a hard pill to swallow

Image credit: ‘Avengers Pills’ by Soon Wook Yeom

Over a period of three weeks I read stories from others to understand more about my condition. Reading their words felt like someone had forged my unwritten memoirs – both invasive and comforting. I could see myself in their words. At that moment they were my mental doppelgängers.

I’d tell my partner about their stories and how it’s all beginning to make sense. I was really confused that I couldn’t see it before. I’d read excerpts out loud to him and tears would escape from the raw realisation. He told me to stop reading them because I’ll begin to believe it’s true. But it was true. Wasn’t it? (Cue the anxiety spiral)

His words shattered my judgement. I went back to my GP surgery for a second opinion. Following another assessment, the second GP confirmed my condition again and offered medication. I declined. My partner said he was glad I didn’t take a prescription because I don’t need drugs and it’s not that bad. I decided to walk this journey without him and seek counselling to guide my journey. Without the person I considered to be my rock I felt insecure and I don’t do insecure.

During the first month I kept a diary to monitor my mood. I needed data to analyse. Every day felt muffled so the diary gave me the insight I needed to see my frame of mind in black and white. I rated my anxiety and depression levels out of 10, hours of sleep I’d had, food I ate, the weather that day, how I felt generally and… how my partner’s behaviour that day had any impact. I then wrote one thing I’d try the following day. The diary was my safe space to reveal myself while playing the role of “I’m trying my best to be fine”. I made myself the victim who needed saving… with data. Sounds so silly now, but those that know me won’t be surprised.

Pretending everything was fine around him was unbearable. I was a visitor in my own home, losing him and myself all at once. In my mind he wasn’t trying to understand and I was alone.

So I did what I’m good at and held a communications workshop (don’t laugh, I did! I was desperate).

The intervention

Image credit: Miniature manifesto, Patrice John-Baptiste

I needed to set the right tone and wrote a letter pouring out how his denial was impacting my recovery. Four whole pages. He read it, I waited and he shared that he could see what I was going through and will support me. Bang! I cried out of sheer relief that things could get better. Then I decided we needed an action plan to capitalise on our progress (I’m such a management nerd, sorry) so held the workshop. I had it all planned out. Cut out strips of post-its to write on, had a set of questions, a timed agenda and ground rules.

We silently gathered our thoughts about specific things and read the other person’s notes aloud. We heard each other, directly responded to each point and in less than two hours were on the same page with tangible steps to take. Winning. What I remember most poignantly from our conversation was he admitted to silently coming to terms with my mental health over the months but didn’t know how to approach it. My “everything’s fine” demeanour made it difficult for him to reach out. We were both stepping on egg shells we laid for ourselves.

I kept the letter because it will be powerful to look back on in a year’s time. I also kept the post-it notes… for no reason.

Daddy’s girl is fine because she always is

My father and I have always been close – a typical daddy’s girl relationship. We mainly speak about worldly matters like rights movements, politics, crime, relationships, religion, the isms, technology, engineering… you name it. He set a precedence when giving a nine year old ‘How to win friends and influence people’ as bedtime reading.

I told him casually as experience showed this was an effective approach. His response was “You’re fine darling. You’re not depressed. You’re just going through a period of change, you just need…” Then I switched off. I couldn’t help it.

My father, the person who could always sense if something was wrong, was telling me I’m fine. But I’m not fine and I was ok with that. Why wasn’t he?

Learning from my experience with my partner I didn’t take it personally. I recognised we were worlds apart on yet another one of our worldly matters. I needed to change tact. We both liked a great debate so I brought up issues I had resolved in general conversation and over time he began to ask questions, challenge and learn from my experience.

Learning it’s not just about me

Although it is my lived experience, it was never just about me. To look at it logically… communication requires dialogue between two or more people. One person speaks and the other absorbs part of what was said and the cycle repeats. Their frame of mind, or how they perceive the person who is talking, will determine what they do and don’t hear at the time. I had no control over how they absorbed the information I was sharing – vulnerable information – and that was challenging.

I was so engulfed in escaping a dark hole that I assumed everyone else was in there with me. They were viewing the world with the same lens because I told them to. This was my world, they are important to me so they should be living it with me because that’s what we’ve always done. I was incredibly wrong, naive and admittedly selfish.

They needed to navigate their own journey of acceptance. My personal attributes have partly derived from my mental health condition. So the person they know me to be is being challenged by a source (my GP) that doesn’t know me as well as they do therefore cannot be trusted. They needed to grasp what was inherently me and what was driven by my mental health. Where was the threshold? If I couldn’t distinguish the line then how on earth could they?!

They had to get to know me all over again while I was trying to untangle myself. I needed to go easier on them because it’s hard on them too. We can’t rush reflection.

I hope you enjoyed my personal account. It can be very difficult to spot the change in relationship dynamics when a mental health condition sits in between. There’s so much at play that’s invisible to the naked eye – discovery, vulnerability, conflicting belief systems, communication gaps, personal experiences and the wear and tear of the daily grind. If you’re someone with a mental health condition or are close to someone who is… go easy on them. It’s tough for everyone.

Patrice x.

Patrice John-Baptiste

Written by

Queen Storyteller at FIRST Tech Challenge UK. Robots, data insights, diversity, mental health, mum-dancing and Bond. Prev. ODI, Manifest LDN. My ideas.

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