In February, the Time to Change campaign are having a ‘Time to Talk’ day. It’s a day to ‘have a conversation about mental health’. But sometimes, it isn’t that easy, is it. I’ll challenge myths about psychosis, or argue for a less medicalised view of mental distress. Ask me about my own mental health, and it feels quite different.
I generally have conflicting feelings about openly discussing my experiences. I want to be honest with the people close to me about something which still colours my life a lot more than I’d like it to. But I don’t want to be treated differently, or seen as ‘fragile’ I also don’t want them to feel responsible for me or to be ‘careful’ with me. I feel a sense of responsibility to challenge the misunderstandings out there, but I don’t want to be judged or thought less than. I am genuinely fine, and I don’t want people to think I’m not. I am aware that silence can feed fear and shame, so I want to talk, for myself as well as others. But once it’s said, you can’t control how others receive that information, or what they do with it.
I am also tired of the ‘them and us’ dichotomy that seems to exist within mental health services, as though being the one delivering services somehow makes us immune to our own experiences of distress. It feels like we can have empathy ‘professionally’, but falter when a colleague, or friend, show signs of struggling. Or, we secretly view those people as more ‘fragile’ or weak. And in my experience, eating disorders can be particularly misunderstood.
Some friends have know me at my worst, and been there as best they could. One sent me daily text messages so that I could get my head around more ‘normal’ eating. Some, have only known me as I am now (admittedly underweight, but in many ways, pretty ‘ok’, functioning), or I’ve been able to successfully hide bad patches well enough that I suspect they’d be surprised if they knew. There are plenty of labels and numbers littering my notes, but my mind can still feel foggy and confused about what’s real and what isn’t when it comes to my own weight and food choices.
I have know some wonderfully kind, thoughtful mental health professionals both as a colleague and a client. I have also known those who I fear would judge me if they knew about my difficulties. When it comes to sharing my own experiences, for me, there is also a huge element of professional responsibility. I want to participate in discussions around mental health. I want to challenge some of the myths and stereotypes around eating disorders. I also feel it would be irresponsible to disclose personal information where clients might be able to access it, so I write anonymously. My colleagues don’t need to know, so I don’t tell them. I want to be respected. I don’t want people to make assumptions about how I am, every time I refuse a piece of cake.
So, it is an uncomfortable place to be. On one hand I feel a responsibility to break down the ‘them and us’ barrier by sharing more. But my desire to protect myself and the limitations of my professional role also silence me. Or maybe, that’s just an excuse.