This morning I woke up to find my #imnotashamed tweet in the Huffington Post.
With that tweet I declared that I’m not ashamed of my mental health diagnoses.
In these past weeks, I’ve completely opened up about the mental and physical illnesses I live with everyday. And it’s been rather freeing.
A few years ago I did an interview I heard about through Help a Reporter Out. I was under the impression that the article would be about alternative career paths law school grads were taking that weren’t the traditional firm or criminal justice routes many take. I spoke to the reporter about my passion for health policy and how that meant I made very little money (never above 200% of the federal poverty limit at that point).
When the article came out, I was certainly surprised at the headline.
I wrote my friend “Oh the roads these stories take me down. Guess I won’t be shy about being poor anymore.”
For a while that was the top hit if you googled my name.
It also happened to be a time when I was trying to establish myself with my own law practice. I was running the health tech group in Austin, making powerful connections in the community and in health IT. I was still a fairly inexperienced blogger, trying to take myself seriously. I didn’t exactly want to be seen as the poor lawyer (perhaps impling that I was a failure).
But I decided to own it. I told people I met while networking to google my name and see what came up. I figured it was better to come straight out with it because my story was already out there.
I remember being told that some made the comments behind my back asking “Is she proud of this?”
While I didn’t really want my poverty to necessarily be my identity. I decided, yes, I was proud.
Not proud that I was on food stamps but proud that I was surviving and that I knew a part of life most will never experience. That these experiences will help me be a better advocate.
And it was freeing. I no longer had to hide.
No one should have to hide.
But I was still hiding a lot. What wasn’t captured in that headline were the reasons I struggled so much professionally. It wasn’t simply because I took a different path, though that is part of it. I was struggling because I was losing jobs when my mental and physical health kept getting in the way.
Besides the discrimination faced when employers found out about my mental health struggles that led to my being fired (one job told me it was because I couldn’t write, analyze, or interview – certainly not related to my mental health diagnoses or the fact Is just spent time in a psych ward 10 days earlier), having so many illnesses in themselves make it hard to keep a job. While I’ve never missed a deadline and I’ve found myself at times working from the hospital or while in excrutiating pain in bed, it’s hard to keep up with so many obstacles. One day I’m late for the bus because my blood sugar drops. The next day I may not be able to get out of bed because the suicidal ideation is consuming me. A few days endometriosis may have me writhing on my couch, wishing I could cut my uterus out. Another day I make it to work but have a panic attack. And maybe another day I’ll have an accidental exposure to gluten setting off the autoimmune reaction that is celiac disease (imagine the worst food poisoning you’ve ever had times 100). Then trying to find accommodations in a special chair because of the chronic pain issues And so on. (Side note: anyone with physical or mental health issues should visit AskJAN.org for information on how to protect yourself from discrimination and ask for reasonable accommodations).
I wasn’t able at the time the Business Insider article came out to speak openly about my mental health – worrying about how I’d be perceived professionally, about discrimination, and about protecting loved ones. Now I can speak without reserve. As I said in previous posts, I have nothing to lose, no ego or dignity to guard.
And honestly, in opening up, others give me the honour of sharing their stories. While I didn’t talk publically about my mental health, I did often share it in smaller settings. With a friend over dinner, with my design team at IDEO as part of Medicine X in 2012, at small conferences (that I knew wouldn’t be recorded), consulting privately. Every time I opened up, someone would approach me and open up too. In that way, I knew I wasn’t alone, but more importantly that I could give a voice to those who weren’t able to speak. I could listen to truths many couldn’t tell others – whether because of similar fears of discrimination or being misunderstood. These secrets I hold close, knowing all they represent.
Without the devastation that was 2015 for me, I would not be in this place – able to stop hiding. After my rather public twitter melt down last December 18 and my posts shortly before and since, there can be no more hiding. Like the article revealing my reliance on food stamps, the truth is public. It’s out there and now I have the opportunity to make something out of it – whether that means being a better advocate, humbly offering my experience, listening to others and bearing witness to their stories, or adding to the solidarity those who are also living with mental illness that they might know they aren’t alone.
I do not pretend to represent all mental illness, or that my story should exemplify what it is to live with several debilitating mental and physical illnesses. This is simply my reality.
I can no longer hide it.
No one should have to hide.
I also can’t hide that I’m still in need of housing. If you’re able to assist, please visit generosity.com