What is it like to "come out" about having experienced mental illness?
August 14, 2014 12:57 AM   Subscribe

I would like to hear stories from people who have "come out" about their lived experience of mental illness. What is it like to simply say, offhand, "Oh, yeah, I had depression" in the same way one might say, "Oh, yeah, I'm queer" - and have that be relatively common knowledge about you, rather than a private matter to be shared only with your closest confidants? How did you make the decision to be open and honest about your experience, and what were the benefits/pitfalls of doing so? Did you worry about professional ramifications down the line? How did it affect your sense of self? Do you ever wish you could un-disclose and stop being the "token crazy person"? I am particularly interested in hearing from people who have "come out" about their experience in order to assist others - for example, using your lived experience in a professional context to work in mental health promotion or peer support work.
posted by embrangled to Human Relations (31 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've tried to do it after people already have judged me as competent at my job. It's a way of indicating that someone with chronic MDD can be successful.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:47 AM on August 14, 2014

I am an author for teenagers. I frequently am open about my struggles with anxiety and my love for therapy at book events because I want teenagers in my position to seek help if they need it. It's been great--often other authors at events well also disclose mental illness, teens will tell me how helpful it is, booksellers will tell me they'd been considering therapy and I've pushed then over the edge. I have zero regrets about doing so.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:06 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Embrangled indeed. Depression is in my experience difficult to hide for those that know what to look for so I'll only talk about that. I can't speak about being queer. [And I'm a bit alarmed with the conflation being as depression is curable whereas being queer isn't someting that needs cured. There are certainly parallels in the way society treats both but I can only speak to depression. I'll answer your question as honestly as I can].

I am fully out as someone who suffers from depression - big club that with great company. When I was a corporate person I hid it as best I could and it's something that people don't want to see so they will ignore the signs as long as you do what is asked. What I found is that a high baseline mood can conceal depression. This may be a bad thing as it is a mitigating factor and keeps you from getting help [he/she seemed so happy trope].

Being around depressed people is difficult, even as someone who suffers from the same disease and it's really common for depressed people to want to help other depressed people as a means of extricating themselves from their own depression. Please be careful about this.

"Coming out" [has a lot less stigma than it used to I think].

It was really difficult and a huge relief. I advise it.
posted by vapidave at 5:12 AM on August 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have been pretty vocal and open about my experiences with depression with my friends & family, on twitter, on my blog, and speaking at conferences

How did you make the decision to be open and honest about your experience, and what were the benefits/pitfalls of doing so?

I was co-founding a startup, and my business partner at the time was pretty well aware (and supportive of what I was going through. I figured I wasn't about to fire myself for having depression, and if future employers weren't going to hire me because of it, I probably didn't want to work there (though I definitely have privilege in that software developers are in high demand).

For me the benefits have been in being able to help other people recognise their own problems, and feel like something of worth has come out of my pain. As well as just hearing other people say back to me "oh, man, I struggle with that too" is kinda comforting.

As a result I've found a number of new friends in people who have been suffering themselves.

I'm not sure about drawbacks. Sometimes it gets frustrating when people (most notably family) ask "how are you doing?" with that "no how are you really doing?" every time I speak to them. I know they just care about me, but it sometimes feel like the depression is a bigger part of me than bigger than I am.

Did you worry about professional ramifications down the line?

Kinda covered above, but yes and no. It was definitely a bit of a consideration, but I figured my personal circumstances made it relatively safe for me to be open, and it felt like something that would help me, and maybe other people, recover. I would totally understand someone being reluctant to share because of this though. Society is getting better at handling mental health, but it's still not great in all places/industries/etc.

How did it affect your sense of self?

I'm not sure exactly. It definitely helps when I hear people say that me being open has helped them. At the same time, I sometimes worry if I'm ever not helpful, or if I'm trying to claim limelight because of my condition - kind of impostor syndrome about being depressed or something weird like that.


I, personally, have none whatsoever. However, I also would never push, or expect, other people to be open unless they genuinely want to. As a sufferer, recovery has to come first. There's no point sharing if it's going to make things worse for you.
posted by latentflip at 5:14 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your comparison is apt - I say "Oh yeah, I have had my whole life, in varying degrees, depression" in exactly the way I say "Oh yeah, I am queer." Which is to say that it may or may not come up in a casual conversation, but the only time I am ever actively avoiding the topic is in actual job interviews or in, maybe, the first few months of a job when people are getting to know me. After that, I'm pretty open about both things, everywhere and anywhere I go.

It's really no big deal to me. I see no reason to hide it and a lot of reason to talk about it - on a personal level, because my mental illness history is key to understanding me, and on a more general level, because the more you talk the more you destigmatize and that needs to happen like pronto. (Having said that, I realize that being able to say 'no reason to hide it' is a huge privilege - I have a supportive family, am reasonably financially comfortable and certain I could find another job and/or get by on savings for a fairly long time if I were to get fired from mine because of my openness, etc.)

I do not worry about professional ramifications, except as noted in that very beginning period of a new job when I do want people to be focusing on how I do my work, not on who I am. That's partly because I'm just very private at work in general - I'm not telling anyone much about any aspect of my personal life, it's not that this is the one special area I'm walling off.

I never wish I could undisclose or stop being the token crazy person and that's because I've learned there is no token crazy person. One of the things I've seen is that when I am open, people are open back - and I learned that pretty much everyone is touched by mental illness in some way either personally or in someone they love. Some of that's probably a clustering effect - we tend to find each other, so maybe out there there are also clusters of totally normal people with no personal relationship with mental illness. But I also just think this stuff is super, super widespread and no one really talks about that. When you start talking, you start learning how alone you're not.
posted by Stacey at 5:33 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I fucked up part of my above comment and have requested the mods fix it. I sincerely hope I didn't cause any upset.
posted by vapidave at 5:35 AM on August 14, 2014

Response by poster: [And I'm a bit alarmed with the conflation being as depression is curable whereas being queer isn't someting that needs cured..].

Sorry, that wasn't my intent. I identify as queer and have lived with depression; I certainly didn't mean to imply that any sexual orientation requires a cure. I intended it more as an example of a personal status that one might choose to be open and honest about - and perhaps even draw strength from - despite living in a world where many people still consider it a shameful or private thing. My apologies to anyone who was hurt by the comparison.
posted by embrangled at 5:46 AM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

I guess I'll be the voice of dissent? I have bipolar disorder, not depression, so that may color my experiences somewhat. I have been varying levels of "out" in various situations. I was more inclined to be casually open about it with colleagues and friends earlier in my life. I have had problems with bosses lecturing me on how they don't believe in mental illness or psych meds, or that people with my diagnosis are dangerous and should be locked up. I very nearly got kicked out of my undergrad institution for disclosing to the wrong people. On the milder end, people have simply changed how they interacted with me and questioned my capability after finding out. Friends have gone cold or treated me gingerly after finding out, or treated me like a dangerous animal. People aren't great about keeping confidential things confidential, either.

So, now I generally don't disclose. Nobody at my current work knows - and people are generally not inclined to see what they don't want/expect to. I have old scars that I generally keep well covered, and which I lie about when I screw up and forget to wear long enough sleeves. Some of my friends know, some don't. My in-laws don't know, except for one or two that I am close with. I don't think much of my extended family knows. I did tell Mr. Bowtiesarecool shortly after we met, because that seemed the ethical thing to do, but I don't see any reason to tell most other people.

In theory, I like the idea of showing the world that see, bowtiesarecool is a functional, agreeable person despite the diagnosis and You Too Can Survive This and all that, but in my experience it has not been worth the personal and professional costs to be "out". I have bad days sometimes. I do not want those bad days to be the defining factor of who I am in so many people's minds.

Tread lightly and consider what you can personally afford.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 5:56 AM on August 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

In my experience there are different levels of being out. I have a circle of friends that have a range of mental illness issues and we are all quite open with each other. That has been extremely valuable over the years for many of us. But there is not very much formality involved, we don't worry about what each other has actually been diagnosed with and generally speaking it is just accepted in a loose sense that we struggle with sanity to some extent. This fits in with a wider circle of friends that do not have mental illness but know some of us do. There's not really an out state or not out state for anyone, just sometimes you get talking and intimicies are shared.

I don't know anyone at all who will volunteer details of their mental illness in a completely general way, but openness is common.

For me there was no decision. My mental state at a very difficult time was noticed, by a number of people, and I became more open as part of that. Increased openness has for me been without stigma, that I know of, has increased my own acceptance of myself and made management of my illness vastly easier.

Having said all that, not everyone I know is aware of the idiosyncrasies of my mind, in the same way they are not aware I have high blood pressure, it's mostly irrelevant.

The only people I am not at all open to are family, as my mother would not sit easily with it. Sometimes not being open is for the sake of others too.
posted by deadwax at 5:58 AM on August 14, 2014

That was judgemental of me embrangled and I apologize. Sorry.
posted by vapidave at 6:01 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question.

I work at a therapeutic school for high school kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities, so it's a culture where everyone there understands mental illness and it's part of the daily fabric of our kids and how we do business. As a school, we get it. Depression, mania, borderline, schizophrenia, these are just a normal part of our student body and nothing especially odd or gossip-worthy.

In our setting many, MANY staff members also disclose their diagnoses to everyone, and that's fine. It will come up in a meeting where we're discussing a kid's depression and someone will add that THEY have depression so they can offer some guidance.

Where I've noticed it can weird or off-putting is when some people make their depression/borderline/anxiety, etc. the focus of most conversations.

At lunch they sit and discuss their medications, their therapy, and most of their conversations revolve around their diagnoses and treatments. So much so that informal peer chats are about these things to the exclusion of basic social chat.

I wonder if this is what happens when you work in a therapeutic setting. Or maybe I work with people who have some social issues.
posted by kinetic at 6:04 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's really no big deal to me. I see no reason to hide it and a lot of reason to talk about it - on a personal level, because my mental illness history is key to understanding me, and on a more general level, because the more you talk the more you destigmatize and that needs to happen like pronto.

What Stacey says, a thousand times over. I honestly believe one factor in me beating depression was to be honest about it, talk about it with my friends and family, and also acknowledge that other people have it so much worse than I did, and I was doing a good thing by talking about it and doing my tiny little bit to destigmatise it.

When I told my mother about my diagnosis, she was mortified and couldn't get off the phone quickly enough. She just didn't understand. Now she understands that it is an illness, not an 'affectation'. She learned that I couldn't just pull my socks up and get on with life.

I soon learned that the more I confessed, the more friends and family 'came out' and admitted that they or their friends or family had also been a victim of the black dog. I firmly believe that the more we talk about it, the more good we are doing. And I think that helps us in our recovery, because we are doing good by saving others from suffering the way we have/are.

Oh, and one last thing. Any 'friend' or 'family' who judge you for being honest about depression can kiss my fat Aussie arse.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 6:37 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I "lost" years to depression, some of them critical years, and I'll always be a bit 'behind' thanks to that. And I was kind of a jerk back then, too; you don't know how self-absorbed you are at the time. So talking about lost years is far, far less embarrassing than just sitting around trying to pretend I did great in every class I ever took and was totally justified in being the jerk I sometimes was back when.

But the biggest impetus to be open about it is to try to wave a flag at people in that particular abyss to say that it's possible to get out. It's not hard to fall so far down that recovery looks utterly impossible. I hope I wanted to die for a long time but now I never ever feel like that and can't even conceive of how I could feel like that again is a useful message.

I'm sure there are people who think I am or was (just) lazy/flaky/self-absorbed/etc (and I'm sure in some instances that would be justified) but I seem to not notice who they might be, and if I am the "token crazy" I am definitely not aware of that. Most people I know are quite bright and well-educated and they have either had their own struggles, been intimately acquainted with a sufferer, or have simply read enough and paid attention to the world enough to not have a negative view of mental illness. I mean, there's got to be judgment out there, but it's just not something I end up coming into contact with. (And I would be ever so scoffy if I did.)

It really doesn't feel much different from disclosing physical ailments. It's good to be open about challenges (well, ideally without being whiny); it boosts one's friendships and, I feel, betters communities. The more people who are 'out' about their struggles, the less alone the struggling feel. It sucks, for example, to find out that a good number of your friends are, like you, in a really bad place financially -- but there's a lot of good to be wrung out of none of you feeling alone in that boat and knowing others are going though it, and watching the hanging on, and the coming out on the other end.
posted by kmennie at 7:04 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've told friends without issue, but these are also people who have been to therapy or have a history of depression themselves. In academic settings, however, I rarely disclose. I took a medical leave last year and, upon returning to school, was denied accommodations by my school's disability center, instead told that I should individually tell my professors I'm mentally ill. I've had professors who are understanding and helpful, but I've had more who don't believe me, and one who came to me before class and suggested that I might be bipolar or have Tourette's. It's embarrassing to reveal myself to somebody I don't know only to be rejected, and I've found it more cathartic to not say anything.

The reasons I choose not to disclose are a matter of time and how my depression manifests itself. I'm no less depressed and anxious than I was before, so those details reflect who I am presently, rather than who I was. The other factor is how directly my mental illness affects others. Bowtiesarecool and thereemix both mention being shunned after stating they're bipolar, and depression and anxiety are considered internal, almost passive issues, whereas bipolar disorder is considered more external, and the person on the other end immediately thinks of the "burden" the bipolar person's illness places on themselves. My academic history is littered with a few violent episodes (mostly verbal, occasionally physical), and so, to quote a former professor, I'm regarded as more of "a threat." I'd rather not be tethered to those episodes or that version of myself, but disclosing does exactly that.
posted by lunch at 7:14 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am the mother of a man who has suffered from Schizophrenia since he was twenty six. I, with my entire family, am very open on sharing that fact and have found openness very liberating. The first improvement on being candid is the ability to shift some of the burden to the other party: they are the ones who have to decide how to react, either accept or reject him after it has been made clear to them that he behaves oddly at times and that a disease is the cause. Being open and casual gives the clue that normal life continues and that to us, his family, dealing with his illness is a part of life and not the end of the world.

The second positive thing that has come from openness is the feedback: when we are open, people feel free to share their story of mental illness, either their own or a member of their family in return. Often we are the first people in whom they confide, and often the conversation ends in tears and hugs, but through the years we have built a network of support, essential to the well being of all of us.

I have no regrets in talking about my family situation, my son does not seem to have problems with beig open, the family has gained in support and friends even if the stigmata associated with mental illness are still a tremendous burden, in this country and in most other countries, but my hope is that eventually society will come to accept this as any other disease.
posted by francesca too at 7:45 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am, for the most part, an open book about my anxiety, panic disorder, depression, OCD. The only place I don't readily volunteer this information is at work. The thing is, I'm very transparent and I always say what I mean. It means that when I'm having bad days, people who don't understand get weird around me, which is part of why I've taken to just explaining my issues in an upfront manner. I think it weirds people out that I'm so upfront about not having normal brain chemistry. I am fortunate to have a group of friends who are all relatively open about mental health, and so I rarely ever feel like the token crazy person.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 7:49 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The bipolar vs unipolar discussion is definitely and interesting and useful distinction to consider. I'm a unipolar depressive partnered with someone who has bipolar disorder. And for all that rah-rah-rah I just did up there about my own disclosures, I have sometimes clutched a bit and been worried for my partner when he discloses. He's been talking openly about his struggles more and more in recent years, and I'm so proud of him and also learn so much about him every time he does talk about his struggles publicly - but at the same time there's a certain protective instinct that kicks in that makes me worry for him. Because I have definitely seen people respond differently and more ignorantly to his depression than mine - there seems to be so much more misunderstanding surrounding bipolar.

For whatever it's worth, I've seen him say much as I did above that being open and honest feels critical to him, for the destigmatizing and for education others and for his own ability to be authentically himself. But I'm sure it's a different experience for him than for me.
posted by Stacey at 7:57 AM on August 14, 2014

I have PTSD and have been in treatment for that and another over-the-top mental illness that makes people lose their shit even to talk about it. In my early 30s I went through an activist, self-disclosure phase. I was in a good place in my life and I thought it would help raise awareness. I disclosed to select people at work (not a therapeutic environment), my friends and much of my family. As you can see I am not obsessed with keeping it off the Internet.

I lost a couple of friends through the process, partly because I made a huge deal of it and I wasn't fully prepared for the amount of pushback I was going to get on even believing me, and partly because I was transitioning my life from survival mode to living mode and they were not as into the ride.

In my personal, most intimate relationships, being open has been a huge asset...life changing. Amazing.

In the broader world, that was basically a non-event. It didn't help most people be more aware of anything except for a while there was kind of an awkward pause (how...are you?) People literally cannot believe that I both have the diagnosis I do, and life the full and happy life that I do, even when I share stuggles. It's kind of like grief...unless you remind people that you're grieving, they tend to forget in about 6 weeks. I hope that I helped a couple of people remove prejudices but chances are they just put me in some kind of exception box.

I chose not to keep it front and centre and after I changed jobs (to one where it might be an issue if I made it one) and moved and added new friends. Not because it was awful or life-ruining to have told others, but because it was...in some ways...unnecessary. It's something you get to know about me either when it is affecting something in our relationship or my life, or when we are really close.

I do have a plan to be more open about it; I was interviewed for a documentary that didn't really get up off the ground and at some point I will probably write a book...maybe when I retire. I'd like to, but I have other things to write right now, and I also am parenting and just have other priorities.

While my neurological differences _absolutely_ define me every day of my life, _my life_ is not about advocacy at this point. I admire those for whom it is and support them. But part of being healthy, for me, is to not believe that because I have to deal with XYZ, I have to help the world with XYZ. I want to, when it is right for me. Right now's not that time.

I do however have a job where sometimes I am a position to challenge assumptions about mental illness, or open discussions about it and I am pretty hard core about that.

So that's where I am as a data point for your thinking. Totally MeMail me if you want to know more.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:59 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

It saddens me that you would ask this question with no option for private communication because you will only receive answers from a tiny sub-section of people personally involved with such issues.
posted by sunslice at 8:59 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Queer person with recurring clinical depression, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder here. I *think* I've been dealing with them since adolescence but wasn't diagnosed. I hid it well enough from people by reclusing when needed (and had much anxiety around people finding out the "real" me and they'll hate me and I'll be banished to the ends of the world), until the day that I just really couldn't.

I couldn't leave the house for extended unplanned periods because of panic attacks, started having panic attacks in my house, started being unable to leave my bed and had suicidal ideation and intent. It was really bad and it took me out of commission from the outside world.

I told a good friend, who took me to a therapist, and eventually I just told people if I couldn't make good on my commitments. "Sorry, dealing with health issue at the moment", or mental health issue specifically for people I trusted.

I opened up over time. From my closest friends, to my other friends if it was relevant to the discussion, and I opened up to my family last. My family was the hardest. I haven't disclosed it yet in a professional context.

I'd say the net benefit was positive. Most people have been accepting, and opened up about their own experiences with mental health problems. People also have been asking me about mental health resources in times of need. I'm currently the go to person whom people ask, "Hey Hawk V, know any therapists? How did you get better? What medicine did you take? My friend is going through ________insert TMI life story_________." I also became a lot closer to friends who are actively dealing with mental health issues, and they tend to confide in me.

Some people didn't treat me the same way though. Some people overly focus on the depression/anxiety aspect and keep trying to *fix* me, even though I am fundamentally not any different from the person who they knew prior to the disclosure. I still have the same problems, the only difference is they know about it and they just can't enjoy my company sans problems or despite problems.

I've never lost a friendship, but I do get irritated by friends who just share advice or worry about me all the time when their worry is not needed. It feels condescending. But perhaps some of it is my responsibility too, as I already was a chronic oversharer even when I hid my mental health issues from people. Now that they know, I overshare EVEN MORE, so maybe that's why they keep trying to fix me.
posted by Hawk V at 9:10 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have Tourette Syndrome. I am very open about it in some contexts; I recently published an article about it, and posted about it here on Metatalk, and plan to present a keynote speech at the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada's yearly conference in October 2015.

I think my openness has already helped other people with tic disorders. I'm going to be helping with some of the youth programming at the conference and that's going to be amazing, I think, sharing lessons I've learned with people who haven't had the time to figure them out on their own yet. That would have been so meaningful to me; not being the only one, not having to figure out everything by myself, not feeling so alone.

I don't feel alone anymore.

How did you make the decision to be open and honest about your experience, and what were the benefits/pitfalls of doing so?

TS was such a huge part of my life immediately post-diagnosis that I felt I needed to share all this out-of-the-ordinary stuff happening to me with people. Additionally, when it was more severe it was basically the opposite of an invisible disability; it was very attention-getting, all the time. I had to disclose to cashiers and everyone I took a class with (it was awful).

Pitfalls are pretty predictable. The online community I was part of (this was well over a decade ago) had members who trolled me by saying I was faking it. I had to switch a high school class from a regular classroom to independant study in the special ed room because the entire class would giggle every single time I ticced. A drunk girl at a party mocked my tics to my face in a "durr" voice once (this w as years ago and I have still not forgiven her and I hope she's doing terribly somewhere). I got a lot of "like Deuce Bigalo Male Gigalo?" responses. People I bunked with in various residential programs lied to me and told me I do it in my sleep (I don't).

Benefits: I'm getting flown to Niagara Falls next year. Countless strangers have told me they never really understood Tourette Syndrome until reading my descriptions. I know my ability to apply lessons I've learned to other forms of compulsive/impulsive thinking has helped people who don't specifically have TS in real, concrete ways.

Did you worry about professional ramifications down the line?

It's less about not getting hired (which would be illegal as hell) and more about not wanting to talk about it with my coworkers, ever. The article was publshed until my first and middle name, not the more distinctive first and last name I use at work.

Do you ever wish you could un-disclose and stop being the "token crazy person"?

I am lucky enough to have a social circle where everyone is very open about their struggles with anxiety, being in therapy, etc. I am by no means the token crazy person.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:39 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

About five years ago, I was depressed, anxious, and suicidal. At the time I told no one but my therapist, once I met her, and together we discussed it and I decided that I'd like to be on my own with my illness. It was the best choice for me at the time, and I don't regret it.

Fast forward to now. While I will mention to co-workers that I have received therapy before if the topic is being discussed for some reason, I do not go into detail. This is my choice because I am not personally close friendship-wise, or even personality/age/interest similar to the people I work with. I'd just rather not go into it with them.

However, I have, in the past years, "revealed" the extent of my past mental illness to certain members of my family and friends. The results were mixed. From my friends, I got a lot of support and kind words. My family, however, viewed my not telling them as alarming and somehow deeply offensive. It is difficult for them to understand why I did not want or seek out their support during my most difficult times. I didn't expect that reaction from them, but I can understand their perspective. That does not mean I feel any guilt, however, for not disclosing things to them. In fact, I am entirely convinced I made the right choices for me at the time.

Also, I did and still do experience some of what Hawk V describes as other peoples' impulse to "fix" whatever my problems were/are. I think that's why I strongly wanted to do things on my own from the beginning-- I wanted to be the expert on my own self, depression and all, including any "fixing" that was going to occur. I have gained an immense sense of pride, self acceptance, and self love as a result and this has helped insulate me from any negative feelings when people freak out about my past issues. YMMV... I do not expect everyone feels the same way about dealing with their mental illness and I know a lot of people draw more strength from letting other people know.
posted by Temeraria at 9:46 AM on August 14, 2014

After hitting (what I hope was) my nadir last year, I made a conscious decision--same as when I came out fully as queer--to not hide it at all. Everyone in my world knows I have MDD and BPD and some generalized anxiety issues, and lots of strangers do too. I'm hoping in some small way I'm helping to combat stigma.

As for professional consequences, I give zero fucks. I'm not working at the moment--getting my head back together has to be priority #1 lest I burn any more bridges, if nothing else--but I'm lucky to be working in one of the few industries left that are more or less a pure meritocracy. I can either cook or I can't, and any chef I do a stage for is going to see that. Most--not all, I'm sure, but the definite large majority--executive chefs literally do not care one bit about anything else as long as you show up on time and work consistently well.

I do get somewhat frustrated with friends and relatives who either worry when they shouldn't, or offer advice that is at best misplaced. The lack of trust that 99% of the time I really do know what is healthiest for me is annoying, perhaps mostly because it denies my own agency and choices. But they're learning, slowly.

My sense of self has grown stronger, I think--inasmuch as that's possible for someone with BPD, where self identity is highly unstable--in the same way it did when I came out as queer. Not hiding, having to wear far fewer masks, is for me extremely liberating; the weight off the shoulders is astonishing, given how much effort it's taken for years to hide the depth of my problems. Until about a year ago most people in my orbit knew I'd had depression in the past, and had checked myself into the hospital, but that's pretty much as far as it went except for a few emotionally intimate people over the years. I'm much happier not hiding it, and to my knowledge none of my friends or relatives have tokened me. Well, one sort of vaguely does but we're pretty damn irreverent with each other about everything, so it's okay.

All that being said, being that out about mental illness may not be the safest or healthiest choice for anyone--same as coming out queer--so I hope nothing I'm saying comes across as 'people should be open about it.' Would be awesome if everyone could be, but reality...
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:58 AM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I primarily suffer from anxiety, however, when it's not treated, or it's a particularly anxious time in my life, I also display obsessive-compulsive tendencies in addition to depression.

When I first sought treatment, I told my boss, partially to explain a few lapses in my recent behavior, and partially because I needed his approval to take a great deal of time off while I underwent some pretty intense therapy. He was extremely supportive of it, and I opted not to disclose anything to my co-workers. They just knew I had regular appointments for a health issue, and that was it.

I'm in a new job now, and I don't need to go in for appointments quite as often, so these days, I mostly just let my new boss know I had fairly regular appointments for various health issues. (Which is true. I have a number of routinely-treated physical ailments in addition to my mental health issues.) If I were to have another severe episode, I'd probably consider disclosing more information on an as-needed basis, largely to explain for the increase in appointments.

However, with my friends and family, I try to be as open as possible. My parents really don't get it, despite their best efforts, but my friends have been extremely supportive. It helps that many of my friends and significant other have all suffered from various mental heath issues of various severity throughout their entire lives.

Partially because I have the anxiety issues, and partially because I'm pretty private, I've taken the road of, if somebody asks me about it, I'll be upfront and honest about my experiences, but I don't particularly wish to go out of my way to make a big deal about it, either. It is what it is. No more, no less. This seems to work for me, and that's about all I can hope for, really.
posted by PearlRose at 10:20 AM on August 14, 2014

My husband works in high schools with teenagers who have various mental health type diagnosis. He recently had a panic attack at work and has been diagnosed with GAD which he's probably had since he was a teen. Obviously his work knows and has been very supportive. Upon telling friends/Facebook/misc people (a brother, our doula) he's been met with an overwhelming response of "me too, I'm on X!" or similar. We are also in Sydney.

Family varies more, since there's more baggage and history and stuff. One of his brothers has had a similar diagnosis and has been very supportive; his mom means well but is very highly strung herself and her response was less helpful despite her best intentions. My mom was actually kind of excited that he'd started an SSRI and wanted to know all about it in a very science-y sort of way (she's a behaviour analyst).

So basically society at large has been very supportive and it turns out at least half of everyone we know has been treated for depression or anxiety or something at some point.

Family think about carefully - your mileage will vary.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:44 AM on August 14, 2014

Personally when I disclose epilepsy the reaction is generally one of anxiety about the responsibility they may have thrust upon them if I should seize in their presence.

When I disclose depression the reaction is generally one of well-meaning belittlement as if everyone gets sad now and then and I just haven't found the 'one weird trick' that worked for them/ their cousin/the-mailmans-uncles-doctors-neighbor.

In either case it is rare that anyone will understand the memory issues, the unreliability, the comorbid relationship between the two, the vulnerability with disclosure; just how often my failures will be blamed on being broken whilst my needs are forgotten when planning.

Because, in my experience, context has been _everything_ every discussion is undertaken with care and planning. It's tiring but most of the thought goes into preemptively assuaging fears of responsibility and (my) reliability thereby absolving the listener of reason and/or excuse to feel bad or to discriminate.

Hence I have swung through assiduously protecting my privacy through to open preemptive disclosure and back to careful informative-when-necessary discussions.

You can never put the genie back in the bottle, but you also have to be able to trust _someone_ when the proverbial shit hits the metaphorical fan.
posted by mce at 12:36 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It saddens me that you would ask this question with no option for private communication because you will only receive answers from a tiny sub-section of people personally involved with such issues.

Anyone who would like to comment anonymously is welcome to send their comment via the mods using the contact form. You can also MeMail me if there's something you really don't want to share publicly.
posted by embrangled at 3:32 PM on August 14, 2014

I'll chime in here. I'm a manager in a fortune 100 company, and I choose to disclose on a one-off basis. I've found that being more 'out' isn't always a good thing when you are hoping to be considered for future opportunities. I generally find that people regard me as fragile for my diseases(MDD, Anxiety, OCD) while I'm actually quite strong for having survived them and learned to grow.

I hope that everyone's answers are helping you come to the decision that feels right to you. Best wishes.
posted by Draccy at 4:47 PM on August 14, 2014

I'm queer and have depression, and I think in many ways your analogy is quite apt. It's a thing that is part of your identity but not your whole identity and has a whole raft of assumptions wrapped up in it, and it can be scary and/or exhausting to contemplate exposing it to the world at large.

I've been open about my queerness for longer, and had grown comfortable with it so that I am now pretty much out. I'm sure there are people at work and elsewhere who don't know, but it's not because I deliberately conceal it. I just don't go around with a big ol' QUEER sign on all the time. I'm spelling this out because it's interesting to compare and contrast with the way I am about my depression. My friends pretty much know, including my work friends. A couple of other people at work know (manager types). Some of my family knows, but most of them don't. And yet, over the years, as I've gotten used to both the lack of reaction on the queer thing (honestly, I haven't met anyone hostile in so long I have trouble conceiving that they could exist) and more comfortable with my depression (there's a weird statement!), it's becoming easier to be casual about it. Since Robin Williams died, I've found myself getting on the depression soapbox a few times which has been odd. Clearly I'm starting to be a bit more activist about it, which is kind of scary and heady at the same time.

I'm still wary about coming out as depressed to some people though, because of the assumption that it might affect my work performance. My organisation is going through pretty major changes at the moment and there is nothing like being tarred with the "problem" brush in that situation. I know that there is anti-discrimination legislation etc but from observing other clashes between employees-employer over the years (not always mental health) I don't think that would be something I wanted to pursue. So being somewhat discreet about it seems sensible.

As for my family, I live on the other side of the world from them and we have a history of not talking about personal issues. With the exception of one brother and his partner, I've not told them but I can't see what I (or they) would gain from it if I did.

I think that in some ways it's actually a relief to be open about it. Especially since depression varies from person to person, and though I find other people's stories interesting (ie Allie Brosh), my experience has been different. Being able to articulate that has been good. Helps me understand and manage it better too.

Oh yeah, earlier this year I sent an email to many of my friends and some family asking them to help me out with it by sending me things that they though could help me out with the intention that I could assemble them into a book and refer to it when I was having bad times, just in case that was a time when I felt I couldn't ring or otherwise ask for help. The responses I got were interesting - some people sent things that cheered them up (sweet, if slightly missing the point) or ideas of things to do. Some sent poems or other bits of writing. Others said they couldn't think of anything, but wanted to thank me for sharing my experience with them. Or that they were hella busy but would get back to me. And some have just maintained a sort of steady stream of sharing via text, FB posts, etc that is also lovely. So it didn't turn out quite as I expected but the whole thing has still made me feel like it's something I have a degree of responsibility - and ability - to manage with the help of others, I don't have to just passively suffer by myself.

Sorry, this has been long and rambly, I'm so sleep-deprived I'm incapable of brevity and structure atm. Hope it helps a little.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:29 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi, bipolar person here, who is "out" with pretty much everyone I know. I just made this sockpuppet to respond to this.

So, I didn't get diagnosed until 2001. After that, I was open about it with family and close friends, but not work people. I had a lot of struggles with finding the right meds, but in the 2004-2006 time I basically won the medication lottery. A doc put me on a combo that really worked for me, and I turned the corner, got my life back.

I am out now with everyone I can think of, since I feel so well and able to handle life. Of course things aren't perfect, but they are amazingly good compared to the black, suicidal depression that ate up years of my life. And of course the weird / crazy things I did during my manic periods / psychoses.

I work in a profession that is low-level clerk-type stuff, and I feel reasonably close to several coworkers in my group, who I have talked about my bipolar with, without shame. The lack of shame is because I feel like I am doing so well, and have been for many years. I can do my job just fine - I am skilled, reliable, work well with others, show up to work on time, not really excessive absences (my absences are really for physical medical issues). Anyway I feel like I am maybe one big example of a person with mental illness who is "basically okay" to my coworkers. So hopefully I help dispel the stigma just a little bit.

But note: I have never talked about my illness with a boss of any kind. And they don't bring it up. I know my coworkers are super-gossipy so everyone knows, but I really don't feel like anyone has judged me for it (or if they do, nobody tells me about it). I also never breathed a word of it to employers / coworkers before I was solidly in remission (if you can call it that? effectively treated, is what I'm getting at).

As for family, I have been 100% open with them at all times, from the very beginning. I am lucky to have a caring, loving, supportive family. They were never able to "fix" me, but I know they did their best to help me. Mental illness runs in my family, and my aunt even killed herself due to it (never diagnosed, never treated - the stigma was just too huge in her day, and she was a nurse, might have lost her job if she had tried). So I think in some ways my family is just so, so fucking relieved that I am basically ok now.

Anyway, I think it really depends on the situation whether it is fruitful / foolish to reveal one's mental illness. I am very lucky at the success of my treatment, and I tend to overshare in general (working on this!). I haven't found it limiting to my career at all - I work in such boring low-level clerk stuff that everyone makes the same pay, and I am maxed out in the pay grade I can be in my position. No fellow coworker makes more than me, really. I am not a climber, so I don't feel limited. Just glad to have a solid job that I am pretty sure I can function decently well at if I have a Setback. I have had so many Setbacks that I am wary of going for a career that requires high-functioning at all times.

I am not ashamed of my mental illness, but I am very ashamed of not finishing my college degree. Which I did not finish due to my then-undiagnosed mental illness. Oh well.
posted by fellow eye at 9:01 PM on August 14, 2014

I envy people who feel able to be open at work. For me, openness about BP2 essentially ended my career. Didn't exactly have a choice about being open: the doc put me on a med that I had a really bad reaction to and I ended up in the hospital. Even if you get out in less time than anyone has ever gotten out of that hospital (4 days!) and convince them to let you have your computer to do work during visitor hours, you're still screwed. But that's just how my life happened. So now I'm fishing for a new life. As someone wrote: "I thought I had a handle on my life. Then it broke."

I'm 57, the docs in this state put me through the wringer trying all these complicated meds cocktails for a decade. Now, I've got kidney problems starting to surface (common "side" effect of anti-seizure meds), and had another bad episode when drinking so much water because of the kidneys threw my meds/chemistry out of whack. So I'm pushing back. I've told my doc we're going back to what I was on for 12 years in my home state. One med, as needed. No more of this pile of stuff.

Friends, family, employers -- they shut you out. Spouse can exploit it (she's crazy! she makes things up!) so no one believes that he's been cheating on you online for 2 years and is dressing up like a woman (including in my late mother's bathrobe) and that's why I finally moved out.

But you know ... everything has crashed and burned. So what comes out of the ashes? Probably the truth that sets me free. Like one of the earlier commenters, it's hard work to hide. And it's especially hard during this time when everyone wants people to be "authentic" -- sure, they're faking their own hip, ironic selves too, but if you can't pretend that persona, you're non grata. I'm looking forward to beginning to speak and write publicly, in my own name and as Lady Marigold. Because one way to unmask is to arrive wearing one on purpose, right?
posted by ladymarigold at 1:47 PM on July 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

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