5 things I’ve learned from being open about my mental illness

At the end of my third semester in college it was pretty easy for anyone to look at me and tell that something was “off.”A few people pointed out that I didn’t seem as happy as I had been before, and six days before Christmas, I found myself sitting in my doctor’s office on the edge of tears, I was miserable, sad, and feeling helpless. By the end of that visit, my doctor told me I had Major Depressive Disorder. This was no surprise; I had been hiding feeling depressed for a long time before anyone else noticed.

Because dealing with mental illness often comes with a stigma, I was hesitant to share my illness with loved ones, but then I decided the stigma was only gonna end if I said something. I took a deep breath and decided to be open with my friends and family, and here are some of the things I learned once I started sharing:

You’re not always going to be understood.

This was one of the very first things I learned from being open. People denied my illness, right to my face. I was told I wasn’t actually depressed, just “having trouble adjusting to life.” Many people I told asked why I couldn’t just “get over it” or “be happy,” because “happiness was a choice.” I felt dismissed, disrespected, and ignored. I didn’t want to be around anyone who thought this way. I often responded, “If I could just get over it, I would have.” Other people wanted to understand, but couldn’t couldn’t wrap their heads around what it’s like to feel such an extreme amount of pain, hurt, and unhappiness. I try to be patient with these people, because at least it means they care.

Bad people will weed themselves out of your life.

This sort of one goes along with the first one. I’ve known other people with mental illnesses who told me that after their diagnosis, they did a “friend cleanse” to rid themselves of any additional negative feelings or energies. Sometimes that process can be painful and draining in and of itself; but it is possible for the universe to do the work of this process for you. For me, it happened when certain people stopped communicating with me because they assumed I was unable to participate in life anymore. It sounds extreme, but a few people treated me like I was a child; they whispered and plastered fake smiles on their faces when I was around, like they cared when they really didn’t. The removal of these people stings at first, but feels much better later.

You have to ask for what you need.

This one didn’t come to me until recently. If you’re anything like me, you hate asking for any kind of help at all. Support systems can be an important step in dealing with mental wellness, but asking for help is easier said than done. You may feel guilty or too needy the first few times you truly ask for what you need, whether it’s space or love, or patience. However, you won’t get what you need unless you speak up — ask and you shall receive.

You’re not alone.

Mental illness can isolate you and make you feel alone, even in a room full of people. Occasionally, however, someone in that may share what you’re feeling, even if you don’t know it. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 1 in 5 people in the US suffer from a mental illness each year, that’s 43.8 million people! It wouldn’t be surprising to find out someone close to you also suffers from a mental illness. Connecting with others who also have an illness can provide a different kind of support that may seem difficult for those around you not affected by an illness. Everyone’s illness is different, but in no way are you alone.

You don’t have to share everything.

Though I have had good experiences with sharing my mental illness, I do realize that I can keep some aspects of it private — not out of shame, but out of keeping yourself from feeling like you gave your entire self and your illness away. No one is entitled to  your story. I don’t tell people every time I spend days crying and depressed, sometimes I refer to recover in private. No one is required to put everything out there, and you shouldn’t feel any more exposed than you’d like to be. While sharing our stories helps us feel less alone and helps end the stigma, it’s also not necessary to do all the time.

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