Why I Don't Feel Courageous for Being Open About My Mental Illness
On Saturday, I went with my two brothers-in-law and my father to a beer fest. This was a place where there was a large number of craft breweries letting people sample their beers 2 ounces at a time. And while I was there, I was wearing my Here/Hear t-shirt, mainly because it is one of my comfiest shirts. As I walked around, one of the guys pouring beer looked at me and said, “Here/Hear? I love those guys.” I was a bit taken aback as I did not expect anyone to recognize the shirt as we are still a rather small nonprofit trying to do big things. And then he said, “I love what they do. Do you know what they do?” I said I was familiar. And he went back to pouring beer, and I was left dumbfounded.
Now, for those that do not know, which is probably most of you, I am the founder and Executive Director of Here/Hear. I run it out of my house as we have no need for a building at the moment. I do the work while I watch my youngest son, a 4-year old little boy that we inappropriately named Ryder — because he is never just the “rider” but usually the driver. My dog is currently sitting on my feet as I type. It’s a small set-up, but we are able to accomplish our goals. So, yes, I am familiar with what Here/Hear does. I do almost everything, but I did not want to tell the brewer that.
This surprise from the brewer struck me because I was not expecting it and I still feel like what we do is somewhat small. It has not lived into my ideas yet… which is probably a good thing.
But this brewer’s mention of our good work came after I had recently talked to some people who said I was “inspirational” and “courageous” for talking about my story and starting Here/Hear. Their thought was it is hard to talk about things like mental illness and it must have taken much courage for me to begin speaking up and talking about my own struggle with bipolar disorder and anxiety. And they found this courage to speak up inspirational; maybe they would share their own story and do something about what they cared about in their lives.
Can I tell you a secret though?
Nothing I have done has been courageous. I’m not courageous for telling my story. I am glad it has inspired people, but, really, I feel like kind of a coward. You see, I had a job where I was told I would be fired if I talked about my mental illness, that people did not need to know about it and that I would be judged for it. The fact that I could not tell people, especially some of my friends I worked with closely, really ate me up. It hurt me and caused me pain to live with such a large part of my life in a private closet. It was not fair or right, but that’s what I did: I just kept things private. I was afraid and let what my boss told me drive a decision to stay quiet.
Eventually, I came to the place where I was writing and working online and people were going to find out I had a mental illness. So, I told my boss I was going to tell and I started to tell people. And my boss was wrong. He was very, very wrong. People accepted me, they cared about me, they embraced me, they asked why I had not told them sooner. You see, with the right people around, it is not courageous to share your story: it is simply what you do. You share life together. I found this quite empowering, and if I am honest, I got a little prideful and “puffy-chested” about sharing my story. It made me feel really good.
So, it was never courage that resulted in me sharing my story. It was other people’s courage to accept me despite not understanding what it means to live with bipolar. I’m not courageous because it makes me feel good to tell my story, to allow other people into my life. I’m glad that might inspire people, but this is therapeutic for me and gives me purpose to my life, something I might not have otherwise. And, honestly I loved the fact that people love and embrace me in this story. It’s not altruistic: I speak and share because it helps me too. I will never go back to the place where I was forced to live where my story had to remain silent.
No, I share my story and I talk about my illness for me. It’s not courageous, but it is necessary.
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Thinkstock photo by leszek glasner