Stuck in the stigma

I like to think of myself as pretty enlightened, but I woke up this morning and realized I’m still stuck in the stigma surrounding mental illness. Last night I was out with an old friend I’d not seen in more than a year. Our catching up included the latest news and stories of our families — including one of my close relatives with psychiatric and neurological diagnoses. What I didn’t talk about, and have never revealed to him is my own diagnosis and struggles.

Can you say “Hypocrite”?

This is a man I consider one of my closest friends. I feel connected to him in a way that’s rare for me. Whether I just don’t allow it or really am that different from most of the men I know I cannot say. There is mutual trust in the telling of the less savory incidents in our past and an acceptance of each other that allows transparency regarding our failings and weaknesses. I have shared a lot about myself that is held to a very close circle (maybe just my wife in some cases). The problem (for me) is that we worked together.

Though we no longer work for the same company, my friend and I still have a large overlapping circle of professional connections. While I’m fortunate to now work in a company where I feel safe enough to speak openly about a family member’s struggles and the occasional impact on my work schedule, I don’t feel safe enough to talk about my own illness. I also don’t want to risk having them find out accidentally through some string of connections through a mutual friend.

I’d like to think (the societal) we can get to a place where it is safe to talk at work about our mental health just like we might about our physical health or even alcoholism. I know a lot of people who talk openly about health conditions from diabetes to heart disease, to alcoholism. It frequently comes up during water-cooler talk about things like what they were or weren’t eating or their exercise routines.

Imagine for a moment being able to say I take time in the mornings to meditate or write in order to moderate chronic depression. Lot’s of people talk about meditation and tie it to their well-being— but I never hear anyone talk about how it helps with their mental health. Actually, that’s not true — I know a lot of people who talk about activities that are good for their mental health when what they really mean is emotional hygeine. We can’t talk about health without the flip side of illness. Talking about what you do to support your mental health when you have never experienced or been obviously at risk for mental illness diminishes the seriousness of mental health support for those of us with a chronic mental illness. I’ll leave that pet peeve for another story.

It’s not like most treated mental ailments have any more or less debilitating impact on someone’s work performance than most chronic physical illnesses. I know a lot of people who do very well in their chosen vocation/profession and who suffer from arthritis, back problems, and alcoholism. In some cases these folks’ physical ailments have more frequent impact on their work performance than my family and friends who are living with a psychiatric diagnosis, but wearing their “I’m fine” mask at work. Why should we have to worry about calling in sick because we just can’t hold it together well enough to deal with the people and situations at work that day? We do call in, we just don’t tell the truth about what’s really wrong.

I’ve recently even become paranoid about colleagues who are active on medium running across one of my stories and finding out I don’t just have ill family members or friends. I’ve changed my profile pic and my pen name to avoid being found out. Yes, I’m digitally literate and know that with a relatively small amount of the right kind of effort someone can connect the dots between my medium persona and my other online personas,but if a colleague is working that hard, they’ll dig it up my secrets sooner or later anyway.

I hope it will be different for my children’s generation. In the meantime now, I’m making my peace with being a hypocrite. It leaves me less than completely fulfilled in some relationships, but it’s safe for now. I wear my “I’m fine” face at work for now, but someday I’ll retire and I like to think that then I’ll be able to take the mask off with at least some of those friends I used to work with.

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