Content warning: Discussion of mental illness and suicide
I went to the hairdresser today and got a cut and my blue fringe re-blued. A hairdresser asks questions about your life and mine was no exception. I told her I have been off work for 14 weeks due to mental illness but that I am getting stronger and working towards getting back to my job and my life. I barely hesitated before telling her these things. I often joke that I have made a career of oversharing and I do talk about topics most people avoid. Why would I do this? Being vulnerable has a lot of risks. Baring your soul to people can result in discrimination or being ostracised. Social norms strongly dictate that talking about such matters is taboo and will lose you friends. Funny that because I have a lot of friends and lovely genuine ones at that. In fact I suspect one of the main reasons I have so many good friends is because I can be vulnerable and let my guard down.
There are some distinct benefits to being openly vulnerable. I think that the biggest one is the impact it has on others. One thing about me at the moment is that I am a public figure – OK a very minor one but I do have a following and some people look to me for leadership. I recently posted a photo of me holding my beautiful furry friend Mr Kitty. I was wearing a t-shirt and my forearms were showing. I have fairly obvious self harm scars on my forearms. I thought nothing of posting the image – just a picture of Mr Kitty and me looking lovingly at each other. I posted it on Facebook and a person responded saying how much it meant to them that I had posted a photo showing my scars because they had scars too. It was a bit of vulnerability which benefitted someone which I had no intention of doing. It just happened because I am willing to show my scars.
I think talking about mental health issues gives others the license to share their own stories and that sharing can be very powerful. It can help individuals feel less alone but it can also help social change by shifting the tone of what is considered OK to discuss. We have seen this recently with some sports stars talking about their experience of depression. While talking about mental health can be a big positive, not talking about it can literally be deadly. If you are suicidal but you are unwilling or feel unable to talk to someone about it the risk is far greater. I want a world where people can feel comfortable talking about issues like mental illness and suicide and expect – and actually receive – respect and care in response.
Another reason I talk about my mental health is because it is a big part of my life. I don’t feel it is shameful our something to hide away. It is part of what makes me who I am and it takes up a lot of space in my life so why wouldn’t I talk about it?
I have some criminal history from the mid-late 1990s and I talk about that as well. At first I talked about it as a means of catharsis as it was a traumatic time but now I talk about it to help others. I am on the reference group for the ACT Disability Justice Strategy and in that forum my criminal history as an autistic person with a mental illness is extremely valuable.
I have had so many people whisper to me in office corridors that they have schizophrenia or bipolar but ‘please don’t tell anyone’… you would not believe it! I want a world where people don’t feel that they have to whisper that in corridors. I want a world where everyone can feel free to be vulnerable about their life and their mind because it is a good way to be. For me, vulnerability is a huge part in my advocacy but it is also a major protective factor in my life. I am always happy to share and I hope when I do that others feel a sense of relatedness and that they are not alone.