I saw my psychiatrist regularly for a couple of years before the day she told me, “I have an assignment for you.” She wanted me to tell one person about my diagnosis of schizophrenia.
I was nearing fifty years old, and only a few people knew that I had a mental illness, and even fewer still knew the severity of that illness. I had kept that part of my life or my identity as a secret. Even my husband’s family didn’t know.
I talked to my husband about what it would mean if we told someone “our” secret, and he wasn’t nearly as concerned as I was. I said, “Maybe we will lose all of our friends.” He said, “If we do, they aren’t worth it.” I also worried openly about how people would treat me knowing that I had a mental illness often characterized by hearing voices, suffering from delusions, and frequently portrayed in the media as dangerous. My husband assured me he was there to support me no matter what lay ahead.
Together, we picked a day and the friend we were going to tell. The Particular friend we chose happens to be a therapist, so we guessed he was a good choice. He also lives with HIV and knows about fear and discrimination.
We met for brunch, and with hesitation, I told him. He didn’t run. He didn’t open his mouth in horror or shock. He had some questions about my symptoms, and then we changed the topic of conversation and went on eating our meal.
Not long after we completed the assignment from my psychiatrist, I was at a writer’s conference in San Diego. There was a memoir teacher there who also happened to be a writing coach and therapist. The two of us talked during a break, and I told her that I had kept a secret for years and recently told a friend. I told her about my diagnosis, and she was supportive and encouraged me to write about it. She said she would be willing to publish a piece about it in her newsletter.
After the conference, I wrote an essay about living in secret with a mental illness for over two decades. The piece came out in the newsletter, and I posted it to my Facebook account, where I was friends with people from high school, college, all of my previous jobs, and various other places.
Social media isn’t the ideal place to post truth-bombs and real confessions, but it was the best I could do. So, most of the people who knew me for one, two, five, ten, or even twenty years found out that I had carried a secret that meant they probably didn’t know me as well as they thought they did. Choosing a non-personal way to tell people probably stung to those closest to me, but no one said anything negative.
Because the response wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I expected, I became increasingly bold with my former secret. I started writing about life with schizophrenia on a daily blog and for national magazines. After one article I wrote, one of my husband’s co-workers approached him and said, “I saw Rebecca’s article.”
“Isn’t it great?” My husband replied.
When my husband told me about his co-worker, I was worried. “They are going to judge you,” I said.
“I don’t care,” he replied.
“They are going to talk behind your back,” I said.
“They probably already do,” was all he said.
At a picnic, one of my husband’s colleagues started talking to me about people he knows who are mentally ill. I felt awkward and uncomfortable and tried to get away to end the conversation. By revealing my diagnosis and its impact on my husband, I felt my worst fears were coming true.
I felt that I had brought shame to my husband. The very thing I was working on in therapy; I brought knocking on my husband’s door. Not at home, but for him to face in his career.
The thing was, my husband wasn’t ashamed. As I struggled to rid myself of the profound burden of publicly admitting I had the most demonized and stigmatized mental illness, my husband was busy perfecting his cream cheese cookies.
The whole incident didn’t faze my husband at all. The fact that people wondered, sometimes out loud, how he could marry someone with schizophrenia didn’t seem to bother him. He knew his reasons, he was secure in his choice, and he didn’t feel the need to explain it to anyone.
I have so much farther to go than my husband in accepting my illness, and I can’t think of anything more badass than his response to my public admission. Shame says, “I care about what you think of me.”
My husband says, “I don’t give a damn.”