In the historical mystery Anatomy of Murder, Harriet Westerman’s husband has suffered a horrible blow to his head, leaving him in a volatile and sometimes violent state. Now residing in an asylum run by a compassionate and wise doctor, he is slowly stabilizing. (By 18th century standards, this asylum is remarkable in its compassionate and healthy attitude toward the mentally ill; it’s the best of its kind, the characters note.)
The doctor encourages her to take their children to visit their father. Harriet, though, is afraid. What if Stephen, age seven, always remembers his father in this sadly altered state?
Her friend Crowther recommends following the doctor’s suggestion. Stephen will have Harriet and other family members to correct any wrong perceptions about his father’s character, even if Westerman doesn’t recover. He adds,
“He must know it is a thing that can be spoken of.”
That last line struck me with considerably force. So often when I read other people’s stories of their dealings with mental illness (their own or a loved one’s), there’s this sense of secrecy.
I’ve overheard close acquaintances ask friends about a particular relative who has bipolar I. “We just don’t talk about him,” was the reply.
Another person said that her mother never let the family discuss her sister’s bipolar disorder at church or anywhere else. It was a secret, not fit for “polite society.”
Like many secrets, it bred shame. It also made it difficult—impossible!—for the family to receive the support they needed.
I say this with some caution, because I know that everyone’s stories are different. I don’t want my experience to blind me to the reality that some relationships are toxic, people can be judgmental and hurtful, and it wouldn’t necessarily be safe for some people to be as open about their mental issues as I am.
But everyone deals with something.
Everyone needs a safe place to talk about that issue. It can be spoken of. It does not have to remain a secret.
That’s not to say that everyone needs to see (and smell) my dirty laundry strung out on the clothesline, stains and all, and flapping around in the wind. That’s not wise.
There are definite limits to what I will share online. You’re not going to read my middle-of-the-episode, not-quite-logical writings while I’m in the middle of that episode. For me, I find that would make it too easy for me to hurt someone else or damage relationships.
Choose who you tell wisely; choose what you share wisely, too.
There are levels of how much information I share with the various circles of people in my life.
My blog readers: you know the basic facts and a few details of my past episodes.
My church and people at my daughters’ school: they know the basic facts. (Bipolar II—I usually have to define it—take meds—currently stable.)
Closer friends: how these basic facts affect my life. (Here’s what a depressive episode looks like for me—here’s what hypomania or a mixed episode look like for me—please intervene if I’m not acting like normal-Laura.)
Family members (my parents and husband) and my doctors: lots and lots of things.
God: Um, I think he already knows everything, but I still share it with him anyway!
It’s a little like getting a security clearance for the government. There’s levels of who can know what and when and where and how. People have to be approved to gain that clearance level. They have to be proven trustworthy.
But I don’t feel that my bipolar disorder has to be a top secret, confidential, classified topic. I talk about it openly and casually, particularly with people I’m comfortable with. I’m fortunate that my family is understanding and supportive.
When I write about it, I want to send this message:
I have a mental illness, but I’m so much more than my illness.
You might not understand my particular difficulties.
If you ask questions, I’ll answer as honestly as I can.
It’s okay to talk about this.
Some secrets should be shared.
That’s how healing begins.
It’s something that can be spoken of.
(Quote from Imogen Robertson, Anatomy of Murder, pg.149)