A couple of weeks ago, I published a post on my personal blog about a really powerful meeting I had with my therapist: She asked me how I would live differently if I enjoyed myself more. As a thirty-something man who has suffered with depression and anxiety most of his life, I’d never considered that question, and it was kind of a turning point for my mental health.
Many people online connected with the post. Thousands, actually. And like every time I write about my struggles with mental health, I received a number of private messages, each one of them from someone who didn’t feel comfortable commenting publicly about their own struggles with depression and anxiety.
The more I write about my anxiety and depression, the more private messages I receive. They almost always start with “I didn’t want to comment publicly, but…” then they tell me about how they too struggle with mental illness. Every time I get a message like this, I want to reach through the internet, hug the person, and let them know that they have nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, I totally understand their apprehension.
When I first started writing about my mental illness, I was really nervous. I was so worried that my family and friends would see it and judge me. Or my coworkers would read it and think differently of me. Maybe talk behind my back about what a nutjob I am, that sort of thing.
But I’ve been writing pretty openly about my anxiety and depression for a few years now, and what’s happened is that people have come out of the shadows, sent me messages — or pulled me aside at work or at family or church gatherings — and they’ve thanked me for putting into words something that has defined their lives.
Oftentimes, it’s from people I never expected. Just last summer, a woman I’ve known for years told me about her struggles with anxiety; I’m not going to use her name for anonymity. She’s an athletic woman, a wife and mother, who I’ve known for nearly 10 years. She’s a pretty tough cookie, if I do say so myself, and she’s always presented herself as confident and outgoing. But one day, as we were chatting, she told me about how she had an accident, and during the recovery, she developed a pretty nasty case of anxiety. She’d been suffering in silence for years, and she wanted to thank me for being so open about my mental health struggles online, because it’s put a lot of her own struggles into perspective, while also helping her not feel so alone. And then, like so many of these conversations end, she asked me to keep this to myself.
The example above is not an isolated thing, and I’ve started to realize that chances are, at any given time, I might actually be in the majority when it comes to struggling with mental illness. And it’s made me realize that a lot of the people that come across as the happiest outgoing, and strongest people are actually suffering in silence.
As someone who has become the confidante of many people online and in person, I’m starting to wonder if the real issue is that we have become content with this — resigned to suffering in silence — and that might be part of the problem.
Chances are, if you put all those people in a room that you are afraid might think differently of you for having mental illness, a good many of them are also suffering in silence, same as you. And I don’t know why it has to be that way. I don’t know why mental illness is seen as a weakness or some shameful thing that we can’t talk openly about. It shouldn’t be stigmatized. In fact, if I had a hidden agenda, it would be this: I would love for mental illness to be seen the same as any other long-term illness, and saying that you struggle with depression or anxiety might be seen the same as saying you live with diabetes or high blood pressure.
But, of course, we have a long way to go to get there.
I’m not going to tell anyone to talk about their struggles openly unless they feel comfortable doing so. But what I will say is that if you are living with mental illness, you are not alone. You absolutely, unequivocally, have nothing to be ashamed of. And one of the best things each of us can do is speak up, and speak out, about depression and anxiety. Because if we all used our voices, we might be able to normalize this very real — and very universal — long-term illness … and make those who are suffering feel a lot less alone in the process.