Friday, October 31, 2014

On being vulnerable, and letting people in

I made a conscious decision a number of weeks ago, when my anxiety and panic disorder was first officially diagnosed, that I was going to be open and non-secretive about my condition.

I don't mean, by this, that I go around with a big sign on my chest saying "Hi! I'm Kathy McOddBrain!" I do mean that when colleagues, friends and family ask me how I am - I tell them. When they ask about the illnesses that have led to me moving to part-time at work, or withdrawing from many activities, or losing weight or looking strained - I tell them. I tell them about the post-viral fatigue / CFS, yes, but I also tell them about the chronic insomnia, the panic attacks, and the anxiety. I tell them it's been hard, and is being hard. I tell them I am struggling.

I made this decision knowing that it might cause some people to withdraw from me, and that it constitutes a breach of the fourth wall in the professional sphere, where there is often an expectation that people's ... peopleness ... gets left at the door. I made this decision knowing that there is a stigma around mental illness, that I was inviting into the way others judge me. I made this decision knowing that I was choosing to make myself vulnerable, to let people see the scale and scope of my journey with this thing. Losing love may be like a window in the heart, where everybody sees you're blown apart, and everybody feels the wind blow (to paraphrase Paul Simon) - but so is mental illness, when you choose to share it.

And here is the thing. This has been risky, yes, but it has also been absolutely the right thing for me, in my circumstances, and with my personality. Not speaking is toxic for me. Holding things inside is dangerous. Pretending I am OK when I am not is stressful. I am a person who is open to the world and open to other people - I always have been - and to close down when in pain would be alien to me, would hurt me more.

I have been amazed, humbled, uplifted by the response I have had from choosing to walk this path in the sunlight rather than in shadow. The care, the concern, the practical love, of so many friends and colleagues has been overwhelming. When I need to cry (which is often), I have always found someone there to hand me a tissue or hold me gently. When I battle panic, I have been lifted by the presence, the words, the care of those around me. When I need to go away for a while, this has been accepted and not questioned, even when it's been inconvenient, even when it's been sudden.

But actually, the real reason I know beyond doubt that being open is right for me is because in being open, in making myself vulnerable, in showing where I'm blown apart - something in that has allowed other people to be vulnerable in return, to speak of their own struggles and find some comfort in it. I am not exaggerating even a little when I say that 20 different people have confided in me about their own mental health issues, about dark times they have had or in some cases are having, about the places in the heart where the wind blows through. I have held people as they've cried, just as I've been held; I have connected, and if the thread of connection is a dark one, it's nonetheless real for that.

I am very aware of the privilege I have that allows me to choose to be vulnerable and open. I'm white, educated and articulate, employed by an organisation with strong anti-discrimination policies, middle-aged, in a stable relationship with a supportive husband and family. I'm not addicted to anything, including alcohol. I don't need to fear that showing my cracks will result in losing my job or losing my children, being treated against my will, being sub-humanised. For so many people struggling with these issues, the parameters of their lives make disclosure dangerous, and that is so wrong and so sad.

Because, for me, letting people in has been THE factor in continuing to keep going, in trying to wrangle my odd brain into some semblance of peace. Being surrounded by people who see me and see the mess and choose to be with me anyway; people to whom I am drawn closer because my own vulnerability has made me a safe pair of hands for their pain - well, that is everything.

1 comment:

  1. Can't say much else except good on you Kathy. Never a shame to show vulnerability nor pain. Yes it is terribly sad that far too many can't show the same. I, too, am fortunate to be able to speak out about having bipolar and Asperger's syndrome. Take care of yourself and enjoy the small things in life.