Coming Out of the Closet with Mental Illness… My Vision for the Future of Mental Health
By: Alice Vo Edwards
I am taking a risk and sharing my story in a public forum. I am admitting I am not as all-put-together as most days I manage to appear. I’m imperfect. I’m flawed.
If you’re interested contributing to our project in any capacity, email email@example.com!
Being gay is becoming more accepted in this day and age, which is wonderful. Recently, it was encouraging to see American Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon receive positive support. I have gay and lesbian family members and am fortunate that my family is supportive. While much improvement remains to be made, there are a growing number of services and communities available to LGBTQ folks in the U.S. There’s a community center in Las Vegas, where I live, that is open from 10 am to 8 pm every day of the week.
Though I am not gay, I know what it feels like to be stuck in a closet and feel as if I can’t share my whole self with the people around me, for fear of not being accepted.
I’m someone who has been depressed and had suicidal thoughts. They call those of us who have experienced this “mentally ill.” I have a mental illness. No, if you were wondering, it’s not contagious.
When I see and hear about the supportive communities out there for LGBTQ folks, I yearn for similar communities around mental health. It’s not just about accessing doctors, but also safe spaces where you can give and receive empathy from those who can relate. Prevention programs. Community. LGBTQ communities needs better mental health support too.
I reached out for support from my local National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter a while ago and I never got a reply back. I guess they were too busy or understaffed at the time. This is indicative of the problem with mental illness. It is extremely hard to get support, build community, and come out with mental health issues to the people around you. Communities are lacking supportive spaces with resources to assist people with mental health issues in a safe and sane way that doesn’t involve hospitalization or even drugs.
The difficulty with getting support for mental illness, I believe, partially stems from its invisible nature and difficulty in getting an accurate diagnosis. This is compounded by the fact that many mental illnesses come in packages. For example, if you’re depressed and can’t get out of bed to go to work, you may become anxious because you’re worried you may lose your job.
The harsh reality is that people empathize more easily with physical illnesses. You get chicken soup when you’re sick. You get flowers and gifts when you’re going through surgery. When I felt like killing myself, I didn’t even feel safe telling anyone how bad it was because I was worried I would get sent to the hospital, which I couldn’t afford. I didn’t want to get locked up or lose my job or my children. Even if some well-wisher didn’t try to send me to the hospital, I didn’t want to face the anxious eyes and confused looks of family members who don’t understand. I had to fight for my right to be a mother to my children when my ex used my mental health against me.
I think it’s important to take a moment to count my blessings. When I have been at my most depressed, I have had loved ones buy me Starbucks gift cards so I could look forward to something I enjoy. I have people I can go to for hugs and support, even though they didn’t fully understand what I’m going through.
I have gotten out of the rain and am back in a place of sunshine. I have been off depression medication for years. This is something worth celebrating.
I wrote Put Away The Razor, my story about dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts and how I survived it, under the pseudonym Carolee Kassman because of the heavy stigma attached to being depressed. I was worried my current or future employers would judge me in negative ways. Will some future employer Google search my name, see this post, and decide I’m too much “potential drama” to hire? It’s a risk people take when they “come out” with their mental illness.
When I hear whispers — rumors — of other people dealing with depression and see the suicide statistics for Nevada, my home state, my inner voice slaps me in the face and yells at me, “Why are you keeping silent? Why are you only whispering your story when so many are hurting when there are others losing hope and giving up? One person gives up hope on life completely and commits suicide every 13 minutes in the United States. THIS IS NOT OK!!!”
I am taking a risk and sharing my story in a public forum. I am admitting I am not as all-put-together as most days I manage to appear. I’m imperfect. I’m flawed. I’m not a licensed counselor or psychologist. I am just a broken person like you who has flaws, survived trauma, and is willing to show you and tell you, “You are not alone. You matter. There is something special in the world you need to be doing. You don’t need to be sitting in the dark alone and you can figure out what you can do to be happy.”
As someone recovering from a mental illness, I have to work very hard not to let my passion for projects and helping people overwhelm me too much. Being under stress is such a huge trigger for depression, anxiety, and unhealthy habits. Sometimes I fall off the grid or don’t get to hang out with as many people as I’d like, but I am keeping myself alive and in the game. That’s the most important thing — staying in the game even if you give up today as a lost battle. Tomorrow’s another day — go to sleep and hit reset.
Someday, I hope we can have mental strength building centers, where we focus on building strength and resiliency, rather than on illness. Like gyms, rather than hospitals, but for the brain, where we can go without stigma or shame. I’ve spoken to others dealing with other mental illnesses; many of us want a safe and quiet place where we can unwind and rest for a few hours. I envision myself in such a center, teaching meditation, mindfulness-based stress release (MBSR), and the responsive tension release(™) technique I developed along with other therapists teaching cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The place I imagine is a place where no one would force you to go to the hospital during a crisis. We would support those with mental illness this space without the trauma and intensity of being hospitalized.
Until we can come together as a community to begin to explore alternatives for mental health other than focusing on illness, I hope to share my story and hugs to anyone who needs it. I’m open to answering any questions I can about my journey. It hasn’t been easy. Some days it still feels pretty tough. But today, I can count my blessings, smile, laugh, and feel the sunshine. It’s a good day. If I can share the hope that good days are ahead for everyone willing to work through their personal storms, then I’m good with that.