Recently I began an online blog about my experiences as an OCD sufferer. Catharsis was not the only, or even main, intention. Rather, it was to challenge stigma and myths around the illness, to raise awareness, educate and hopefully offer some help to others.
It did feel like a risky step however. This was quite a committed and public step to discussing a very personal problem, one that until the past 18 months, I had only ever discussed with medical / psychiatric services, never publically or socially, really, at all. It has been worthwhile.
Whatever the issue impacting upon your mental health, it is probably more likely that you will consider the cons of opening up and talking about it with people than the pros. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Being cautious, not leaping into something is often sensible, practical seeming advice for most things, be they regarding money, work, relationships…
And what are these cons of opening up and sharing how you feel? People thinking that you are weak and cannot cope, is probably the most obvious one, especially for guys, given the social stereotypes we have imposed on them. People thinking that you have failed. People just thinking that you’re a bloody weirdo is in there, when it comes down to it. And really, a fearfully pessimistic belief of ‘what good will it do anyway? It’s not going to help.’ Given your state of mind, such pessimism is pretty natural, and to fear that sharing will ultimately fail to help is both too horrible to contemplate, and too risky a step to take.
What had always kept me quiet was that I did not want this thing to be acknowledged as being a part of me. When I was feeling better, I wanted to forget it and have nothing to do with it. What led to a change in my behaviour when I entered a particularly bad episode of OCD 18 months ago is another story, but what I think is important is what has happened as a result of my opening up.
The basic thing is the overwhelming support that I have received from my friends, colleagues and work managers. I have also found myself engaged in very positive support networks (being a part of Bryony Gordon’s Mental Health Mates is a wonderful experience), which I would previously have avoided. All of this has been very beneficial for me, but that’s not the good result of my opening up that I want to highlight.
A couple of weeks after I started the blog, I met up with my friend Chewie (all names changed to protect the innocent – and he loves Chewbacca!), and realised just how worthwhile it was.
Now, while not an actual Wookie, Chewie is a bloke’s bloke. Football, rugby, rock music, going to the pub. He has no time for anything ‘wishy-washy’ and is highly critical of my love of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. OK, I’m comically exaggerating a bit, but you know what I’m getting at. You go to Chewie for straight-forward, practical, ‘get-it-done’ advice.
Last year, though, I had became aware that Chewie was a bit down in the dumps, and he listened to me talk of my mental health problems not just with kindness and support, but with an engaged attentiveness. He has reason to have been not quite himself – he’s had a tough couple of years. When his first daughter was born, she was in intensive care for weeks. It was predicted she would not live, and while, happily, she did, she suffered brain damage, has a shunt in her head, requires specialist medical care, and suffers seizures. When his second was born this time last year, she contracted viral meningitis within a week. Talk about luck… Chewie certainly hasn’t done recently, as he has become so ill-acquainted with it. This had led to him not sleeping, and, understandably, worrying quite a lot.
So when we met up he said that in fact it had been somewhat worse than this. He was anxious all the time, feeling physically sick with it throughout the night, and was carrying a feeling of guilt and responsibility he was struggling to address. It transpired that his doctor had put him on an anti-depressant and referred him to CBT. Trouble is, as I alluded to, Chewie is not usually into discussing how he feels deep down, and anything of a therapeutic nature is somewhat alien to him. He had been to two sessions, really didn’t get it, had no confidence that it would help, had even argued with the therapist, and was feeling even more down than ever.
On the Monday of his third session, he left work and got on the train to go to CBT, but then decided he couldn’t face it. Stuff it, he thought, I can’t be doing with that rubbish, and headed home. What he did do, while on the train, was read the first two articles on my blog.
He finished them. He got off the train, turned around, went straight to CBT. He got there and had a great discussion with his therapist, had the best session so far, and came away with real hope. Chewie does not have OCD. But he recognised, and related to so much in my two articles (the second of which is entitled ‘Why I never wanted to write a blog about my mental health and Why I think it’s important to write a blog about my mental health’, and discusses the importance of seeking help and opening up). He suddenly ‘got’ something that the therapist had been saying to him. He had some belief.
Now, I don’t tell this story to take credit or ask for reward. I’m not claiming to have changed the world (for that, please see my upcoming blog ‘How to save the world in three weeks’). I tell it to demonstrate how anyone can be suffering from a mental health problem; how none of us are alone; and that we can do something about it, we can help both ourselves and those around us, by opening up, talking about how we feel. Chewie is a good, but not an isolated example, as six different people at work (from a team of 20) have approached me to talk about something that has happened with them since I shared my experience. One of those is now receiving therapeutic help.
One of the biggest cons of mental illness is feeling alone. That isolation feeds the illness and makes the situation worse. It is a brave step, it can feel difficult, but if you break the silence and talk to your friends, your family, who you work with, that isolation can be overcome. You’re not alone – and the more people who join the conversation, the more normalised mental health problems will become, and the easier steps for everyone to get well and support one and other.
There are no cons to talking about your mental health. Just pros and pros, for you and everyone else.
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