The strange thing about the internet, and particularly blogging, is that it’s often easier to disclose your deepest, darkest feelings to a world wide web full of strangers than to the people you’ve known all your life. There is something about the anonymity of sitting behind a screen that’s really comforting and makes us feel safe. And even if you’re not anonymous, even if your photo and real name are right there in the corner for all to see, you can still bask in the knowledge that it’s unlikely anyone you know is going to stumble across your minute corner of the web without prompting.
And I’ve never prompted. I’ve been writing this blog for ten months but I’ve never put it on my real name, honest-to-God Facebook profile. Until two weeks ago.
I had a whole post drafted previously about how I didn’t feel I could ever share this place with everyone who knows me and how ashamed that made me because I’m forever writing about breaking down stigma and being honest about mental health issues and yet I couldn’t seem to overcome the self-stigma that held me back.
However, when I noticed that is was almost Time To Talk Day something shifted and I decided to practice what I preach and put it all out there. When you write about the horrific symptoms of postnatal depression – the intrusive thoughts and confessions of just how dark the world got for you – it’s nerve-wracking to put the words out there for friends, family and workmates to see. But then I thought – why is it? If I had had any other serious health issue I would want the people nearest to me to be aware, so why not this? The only difference is all the barriers specific to mental illness that I supposedly rally against as an advocate – embarrassment, shame, fear about being treated differently, worries about work etc. And having these feelings prevent me from sharing made me feel like a hypocrite.
Writing the words was easy enough, hovering above that post button was not. But, oddly, the moment after I clicked it I felt freer than I have since I began blogging. No more sneaking around in the dark. For better or worse, anyone looking at my Facebook that morning now knew that my early months of motherhood had not been easy, they knew that I had had confusing, painful and shamefully unpleasant feelings about my son and my own life that made me question who I was. And that was okay. What was the worst that could happen? I’d already survived the illness itself, I could survive telling people about it! It made me think about that expression – coming clean – because I certainly felt cleansed afterwards.
The very best part was the generous and loving responses I received, which I am so thankful for. Several people complimented my writing and shared the link with their own friends which made me feel so happy and proud of myself. Others sent me private messages of support (and often surprise!). And a couple even said it made them feel more comfortable about sharing their own experiences – which was absolutely the best part, as freeing people to speak up about mental health was one of my main aims when I began The Butterfly Mother, and the whole point of Time To Talk.
There is a huge amount of work going on in the media and the advocacy world at the moment to break down remaining stigma surrounding mental health, and I think we are very slowly winning. But what about self-stigma? I have thoughts about myself which I know are false – depression is a weakness, anxiety is attention-seeking, having PND makes me a bad parent etc. I know that none of these judgements are correct or fair and I would never think them about or express them towards another person, so why do we judge ourselves so harshly? How can we counter the stigma and shame we cast onto ourselves in our darker moments? This is something that still needs some work.
Regarding coming clean to everyone, I would never pressure anyone to do so. It’s such a personal choice and not everyone is ready, I wasn’t ready for a long time. And not everyone is lucky enough to have such a wonderful and supportive audience as I did. But if you are currently struggling with PND or anxiety please tell someone. You don’t need to tell the world – just your partner or your boss or – importantly – your doctor or health care provider. And if you do decide to tell more people, you may well be surprised by the love and support you are shown in return.
As a final note I feel I should say to anyone who does know me in ‘real life’ and who was concerned about me after reading my posts please know that a lot of those words are based on how I was feeling a long time ago now. Today, I feel happy and healthy and so, so grateful.
But if you want to worry a little about mental health issues that’s okay, because these are problems that we should all worry about. Please direct that concern to a charity or to someone who you think may be currently struggling, and reach out to them if you can. Make some time to talk about it.