Not long ago I did what for years I considered to be the unthinkable – I ‘came out’ as having a mental illness. I didn’t just gather my friends around and tell them the facts either, I wrote about my entire experience of developing and living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, disclosing all my most embarrassing, deeply-held secrets along the way, and shared it with everyone I know. The nuclear option.
I think a lot of men struggling with their mental health know deep down that sharing what they’re going through is a crucial step in working through it, but the shame, embarrassment and fear often stops us. We don’t want to seem weak or vulnerable and we feel like we should be able to deal with it on our own.
That’s what a real man does, we tell ourselves.
Now don’t get me wrong, I completely understand – I hid my own mental health struggles for nearly fifteen years – so when I did share what was going on I was scared. I was scared what people would think of me, I was scared how people would react if they knew about this part of me and I was scared how it would affect my relationships. I was sure it would change the way people think of and treat me, for the worse.
So when I was treated with nothing but respect and kindness, inundated with messages of support and confided in by others struggling with their mental health I was shocked.
The whole process was a real epiphany for me and I would like to share with you some things I learned.
Firstly, nobody is as hard on you as yourself. For years I kept these secrets and berated myself for them. I was my own worst enemy, finding fault in everything I did or said. Although I could feel an enormous sense of compassion for the struggle of others with similar problems, I felt I was somehow different. Was he a bad person because of her OCD? No. Was I? Absolutely. I was sure that everybody would see me as the disgusting, unlovable weirdo I felt I was, but they didn’t. People saw in me what I saw in others – somebody struggling with a problem outside of their control. Seeing this, I was able to take a step back and practise some self-compassion.
Secondly, people are a lot more understanding than we tend to think. I’m a rather cynical person by nature, and, given the embarrassing nature of what I was sharing (though I can talk about poo more than is becoming of a gentleman), I was bracing myself for judgement and criticism. Messages of support came flooding in and I was still waiting for that one message telling me I’m a knobhead, but it never came. Being the repressed Brit that I am, the bedrock of most of my friendships is a mutual commitment to taking the piss out of one another, so I was sure that by making myself vulnerable I was stepping into the line of fire.
I was particularly concerned about how my male friends would react. Were they going to take the piss? Were they going to treat me differently? Were they going to think I wasn’t a ‘real man’? All valid concerns given the narrative we’re fed of mental illness being a sign of weakness, but it turns out they’re all ungrounded.
When you give them the chance to be, people can be incredibly understanding and compassionate.
Besides, you’re not alone. Honestly. This is a cliché we’ve all heard, but it turns out it’s absolutely true. Within a couple of days of sharing my story of mental illness, I had received a number of messages from people sharing their own experience. I can only imagine the number of people I know who have suffered mental health problems that didn’t get in touch. Hearing from these people – people I would otherwise have had no idea were struggling with their mental health – really showed me these things can affect anybody. Another cliché, but again it’s true.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it feels incredibly liberating to get this stuff off your chest. This secret, this toxic secret I’ve been carrying around with me for years, is finally out in the open and it feels great. I no longer have to lie about or hide who I am, and it’s an enormous relief.
It’s strange the things we’re embarrassed about. In a world of ‘Geordie Shore’, dick pics and the Kardashians, you’d think talking about being ill would be easy, but it’s not. Mental illness is scary, largely because it’s the great unknown.
We’ve all heard about it, but few of us hear from those actually living with it, which is why sharing your experience can be a very positive thing.
After explaining to people how OCD has affected my life and what it means for me, one of the most common replies I got was that it helped people to understand the condition. This has to be a good thing, as understanding is the first step towards acceptance.
‘Coming out’ to my friends and family was a big step for me. It has sparked some tough but very important conversations and has helped me come to terms with my own condition. I’m not saying that others should take the nuclear option like I did, but it felt right for me and I’d absolutely do it again.
It’s funny, sharing with people the details of my most intense moments of isolation has made me feel more connected with people than ever before. In the grand scheme of things, sharing my experience is just a drop in the ocean, but it’s allowed me to live more openly and honestly, and perhaps it can have the same effect for you if you choose to do the same.
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