After I first wrote publicly about my mental illness in 2014, I found myself continually opening and closing my computer, checking for responses to my article. I prayed they would be kind, but grew anxious about how many friends had seen it and what they’d thought. I wondered if it would affect my job prospects, if I’d be considered a freak, if anyone would ever want to date me after reading about my defective brain.
The experience felt a lot like coming out as gay, except harder: People might congratulate you when you come out, but they don’t generally throw you a party when you say you’re mentally ill.
I didn’t enjoy writing about mental illness—I still hate saying those two words—but I was compelled to share my story after hearing people malign those who killed themselves due to psychological struggles. That’s how my father had lost his life. He grew up in an era when men seldom spoke of personal trauma, and medication wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is today. I’ve been spared such a fate.
While my father’s exact illness was never diagnosed—he did once see a doctor who said he was schizophrenic—I know that I suffer from a rare form of OCD called intrusive thoughts, which means that my brain can get so overloaded with terrifying thoughts that I’m paralyzed, unable to think about anything else. It’s like one of those nightmares where your body won’t move despite your mind commanding your legs to run. While it’s crippling for me internally, it’s never outwardly dangerous.
I’m not alone. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness, or around 40 million people, Few of them—about 4%—actually trigger violent behavior. LGBT people are three times more likely than the rest of the population to suffer some sort of mental illness during their lifetimes.
In my twenties, I dated a man who had “a cure” for my illness. He told me, on numerous occasions, that my OCD was something I chose to have, that I needed even, and that once I learned to let go—using crystals and relaxation tapes—that I’d be fine. To him, I was a lost soul without spiritual know-how, but with the right reparative therapy, I could fix my brain. If he’d been religious I imagine he’d have sent me off to church.
But just a few years ago, I had the opposite experience. I was dating a man who suffered from clinical depression, and while I do not have that particular diagnosis, our shared illnesses meant we could speak in shorthand. I could see in his eyes if he was having a bad day, if going out was going to be difficult, if he needed me to hold his hand—and vice versa. The two-way support was unconditional and taught me that the more I talked about mental illness the more likely I’d find a friend or two who also suffered.
I knew I had to be more open about my condition, giving friends and lovers the opportunity to take it or leave it before our relationships grew. After I wrote the article in 2014, I received emails from friends and strangers alike asking if I needed anything and sharing their own struggles with the disease.
One of these notes came from a guy I’d dated briefly, but whom I had a maddening crush on. He said that he was bipolar, which, in retrospect, explained a lot of his bizarre behavior toward me. At the time, I had found him to be so physically perfect and psychologically sound I remember thinking I could never disclose my disorder. But now, years later, his email was a sobering reminder that mental illness spares no one. We’re now close friends.
I’ve since committed myself to writing about my struggle with mental illness because I believe there is a misconception about what the term entails and because I’ve learned that sharing my story helps others who’ve been stigmatized.
While I’m treated with live-saving medication, holistic approaches to my disease are part of the restorative process. In addition to therapy, I’ve learned that, during episodes, if I detail my pain to friends, some of the contaminated particles flitter away. At the very least, a weight is released.
But telling people you’re mentally ill also involves opening yourself up to a society with very little knowledge and a lot of misconceptions. (Despite the fact that Americans spend more money on mental illness than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, it receives the least amount of government funding.) In the wake of several mass shootings, I’ve read articles, overheard conversations, and seen celebrity tweets broadly claiming that we, the mentally ill—all 40 million of us—are a danger to society. People are afraid to talk about mental illness openly and with nuance because the cliche of the tinfoil hat guy shouting out conspiracy theories exists vividly in their minds. They’re quick to dole out opinions or medicines before showing any shred of curiosity, compassion, or humanity.
Here’s what people often forget: Those suffering from mental illness are often just like you. We are your neighbors and your friends and your lovers and your writers.
But I’m also part of the problem because, despite a 30-year struggle with mental health, it’s still hard for me to discuss it publicly. The feelings of embarrassment and shame linger, along with not wanting to ask for help. It’s easy for me to have an hour-long conversation on the phone about movies, friends, the weather, without once mentioning that someone just lit a match to the gasoline-soaked wires in my mind. But I believe that the more others come out, the easier it will be for us to keep the conversation alive.
Perhaps if we viewed mental illness in the same way we viewed coming out about our sexual orientation—as liberation—the sooner we’d find comfort and acceptance.
The last time I had a major episode I was outside of my body looking down. I called an old friend to say I was having a tough time. She said she understood, and proceeded to come up with all her theories as to why I was experiencing crippling OCD. They involved finances, physical health worries, working too hard, and a series of other issues that I’d neither mentioned nor had particular anxiety about. By the end of her prescription, I felt so isolated I turned the conversation around to material that demanded anything but her empathy.
She would have showed more understanding if I said I’d had a cold.