Coming out as a person with a mental illness was not easy. I speak about my mental health comfortably now, but it was not always that way. For a long time, I did not want to speak about it with anyone. I tried to hide it from everyone I knew out of fear. I was afraid that I would be judged or rejected.
There were a few friends who knew that I went to see a counsellor, but even that was something I tried to keep quiet. It is hard enough trying to fit in when you are in high school. I was worried that if people found out that I had bipolar disorder, they would not want anything to do with me. It took a long time for me to start telling friends about my disorder. I was surprised by how accepting my friends were. I think many had an idea that there was something off with me, especially during the years when I was not managing well. As I started to talk about my illness, I found others around me were becoming much more comfortable sharing some of their struggles with mental health. I started to see just how much mental health affects us as soon as I opened about it.
Talking to my mom about it was still very difficult for me. I had been debating for years whether or not I should tell her. I would constantly struggle about where and when I should do so. I also felt guilty when I would talk to others about my mental health, but would not share it with my mom. The first time I told her was over five years after I had talked to my doctor about it. We were driving together and started talking about an article on a rise in bipolar diagnoses in young people. I finally said to my mom “you know (our family doctor) told me I have bipolar, right?” She immediately went to brush it off but I said to her “I do.” It felt weird talking to my mom about it. It felt like I was telling her I had a bad life which made me feel guilty. I was glad that I did though, because it made me more able to speak openly about myself and my life.
Telling people at my work was a very scary thing as well. Even though I work for the Canadian Mental Health Association, I still thought that it was something I needed to hide. I felt like even though my co-workers talk to people who have a mental illness on a daily basis, they would not be able to see beyond the illness. I was worried that there would be these preconceived notions of how I would act because of the bipolar disorder. I was worried that they would expect me to be a certain way. And some of what I have the hardest time with are the expectations and limitations put on me.
In the end, I have had a great response from people. They are usually surprised, and sometimes even a little sceptical about it. However, I then get the opportunity to teach them more about mental health. People who are not aware of mental health then learn more about it and how it affects them and those around them. People who have a mental illness typically then have an open space to talk about their struggles. Most importantly, my mental illness is a part of who I am. If someone wants to sever their ties with me because of it, then they did not actually accept me.