The Second Edge

I’m grateful that people are talking about the importance of mental health. Bringing awareness to how common mental illness is to the general public gives some power to those who suffer. It brings them out of the shadows, no longer sitting alone on the sidelines watching those better adjusted (an assumed quality of course) carry on with their lives.

But like most things there’s a second shoe to fall. Maybe it’s an opportunity. At this point I’m not sure.

Of the reasons to promote mental health awareness, one is to have those of us who live secretly with an illness to seek support, and support is most often neglected when a guy feels like a freak. We need to normalize mental illness and give that guy a voice, to let him know that he isn’t a freak (at least not for being sick), shouldn’t be ashamed and should feel free to get help. Mental illness is no different than living with diabetes or macular degeneration, but the impact of a mental illness is often exacerbated by the feeling that a person needs to suffer alone, that there’s nobody in their corner and they need to keep the branding to themselves. The intangible nature of mental illness seems to somehow discredit the sickness. It’s a lot easier to skip out of life with a broken leg than with OCD. So awareness is a good thing. We can probably all agree on that.

But with awareness comes responsibility, and that might be the next step for mental illness. Without enough preparation and information, shining a spotlight on a vulnerability can easily result in further alienation, and its possible that a person might have been better off keeping it to themselves. Let me illustrate.

Say you write a blog about your mental illness, and for shits and giggles let’s say it’s about depression. So you’ve got this publicly facing website where you’re honest, sometimes to the point of expressing some very real pain that you endure. You don’t really ‘advertise’ the website among the people you know, certainly don’t talk about it in person, but you use the perceived distance of social media to create a little buffer between your honesty and your daily conversations. Afterall, nobody – neither yourself nor your audience – is entirely comfortable having these honest conversations. We’re all served better if we stay topical and funny. The illness isn’t taboo, but people work hard to keep it out of the coffee shop.

With full knowledge and intent, you know this trait of yours is going to make the rounds of your coworkers and the circle of people you know. That’s the intent, right? To bring awareness, to make others feel like they shouldn’t live in the destructive shadow of a double life. In your small way you try to give voice to others, even if they just shake your hand and say thanks, or if they beat around the bush when you run into them downtown. These people are treating you differently, they are – even if only in the smallest way – more open, they look you in the eyes when they speak to you. They ask you how you are doing, but really ask “hey, how are you doing?” That’s progress for all of us.

The challenge – I think – is when those subtle responses, whether they are real or just perceived, aren’t what you want. This itself might be a product of having a mental illness, but when you feel like others are giving you concessions because you’ve got this thing, your differences are highlighted. You sink into yourself, knowing that others now see you as something less than what they believed before. You’re given extra kudos when you don’t feel it’s warranted, or you are let off the hook too easily.

I won’t lie. My thought processes are a shit show a thousand layers deep; there are few things in life that I don’t turn over and over, trying to see what they’re really about, what people’s true motives are. But even knowing this it gets pretty tough to navigate the murky waters of my brain and find a balance between my nonsense and what’s really going on in the world. But it is a fact that when you out yourself, even for a good reason, there’s going to be some fallout and it’s something you need to prepare for.

When your public, your bosses and friends, your acquaintances and your enemies, when those people find out about your “thing”, they’re interactions with you are going to seem different, and they probably will be. People won’t look at you the same way, and without question you won’t feel the same way about it. You’ll be constantly questioning if they are being sincere with you, or if they look at you now as less than before, as something to be handled delicately. You’ll wonder, even expect them to see you as weak, as having a weakness. It’s going to affect you everyday.

I didn’t think about this before I started blabbing all over the internet that I suffer from depression. I knew there would be reactions that would be different, but I didn’t foresee how my reactions would change with this new input. When someone now gives me a compliment I can’t help but suspect that they’ve lowered the bar for me. This is something I need to deal with by either taking advantage of the opportunity or taking their words at face value. I could guess what they really mean until the cows come home, but it gets me nowhere.

So that’s the lesson. If you’re going to do this, accept that you’re different. Own it like a f’n boss. And once that’s done, start scrambling around for the resources to keep it in check. You’re getting into the deep end son, but at least you’ve jumped in.

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