The most difficult things for me to do were to share with someone what I was going through and to ask for help. I had great difficulty trusting people. I wouldn’t let anyone get to know the real me. I had thought that, by sharing my feelings or asking for help, I would make myself vulnerable and open to potential harm.
Not trusting people was a very lonely way to live. It robbed me of the deep bonds that can develop between myself and other human beings. I did, on some level, allow myself to trust my fellow theater majors in college, as well as a few conservatory friends, but even then, I held back.
When I was in my late twenties, my therapist had diagnosed me with having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was a relief to know that there was a name for what I was experiencing though it was very disconcerting for me to learn that I had a mental illness. In my early forties, my psychiatrist confirmed this diagnosis, as well as diagnosed me with having Bipolar Disorder.
I went through a period where I was really struggling. My psychiatrist had asked me if I had a support system in place, someone to talk to in case I couldn’t reach her. I explained to her that, while I had a few friends, I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling them what was going on with me.
I thought it was simply a matter of trust, but it was more than that. It was fear of being judged, and of being abandoned; if they knew who I really was, they would see me as damaged and would stop being my friends.
My psychiatrist told me that it takes strength and courage to be open and to ask for help. She convinced me to share what I was going through with one person. I chose a friend in my sculpture class. She listened intently without interruption, then asked me what she could do to help. “Just be my friend,” I said. Being immensely embarrassed and ashamed of having been diagnosed with mental illness, I begged her not to tell anyone. She assured me that she wouldn’t.
The next day we had class together. I expected her to not want anything to do with me. Instead, she came over to me with a smile and inquired as to how I was doing. After class, she asked me if I wanted to go out for coffee. We did. As we talked, I let down my guard and spoke openly about my fear of her not wanting to be my friend. She assured me that would not happen.
We remained friends for several years after graduation, even though she had moved out of state. Eventually, our contact got less and less as our lives got busier, and our friendship faded away. I didn’t feel abandoned or rejected. I realized that it was both our doing, that it was part of life.
As the years passed, and as I continued with therapy, I became more comfortable with accepting that I have mental illness. I started to take more chances with trusting people. The secret was to allow myself to be vulnerable. I understood that some people would accept me and some people wouldn’t – but that would be on them, not me.
Nearly every person I have told about my mental illness has been very receptive and accepting of me. Some have asked me to explain my symptoms and how they affect me, how it might affect our relationship. I do my best to help people understand. I let them know that I take medication and that my symptoms are usually relatively stable. I tell them that I have learned coping skills for when my PTSD gets triggered. I encourage people to ask questions. I find that the more honest and open I am with them, the more accepting they are of me.
Today, I am a very open person, unafraid to ask people for help when I am feeling depressed, overwhelmed, anxious – or when I just need someone to listen. I am willing to share my life story and my experiences with anyone – I am no longer afraid of being judged as damaged. I do this because I know how important it is for people with similar challenges to know that they are not alone, as well as to help others understand what people with mental illness go through.
I now have a handful of very close friends with whom I share a deep bond of trust and mutual respect. It feels good to share, to be open and honest with people. Most importantly, it feels good to no longer go through life feeling all alone.