In late 2005 I was hospitalized over the Christmas holiday at a facility in Los Angeles.
I went by choice, willingly submitting myself for observation, medication, therapy and testing like a good guinea pig. I needed to go, after all. I had been misdiagnosed, and finally, by staying for almost a month, I would get a lifesaving diagnosis. I was bipolar type II.
While I was in the hospital, a doctor suggested that I write about my story for my local paper, where I worked, but I balked at the idea. I didn’t want people to know I was “crazy.” I didn’t want their judgment, their dismissal of me. But my not writing about it didn’t stop people from finding out.
In my case, a local blogger outted me after I wrote a MySpace post about being sad. He had previously, and persistently, contacted me about reviewing his self-published book, but I had no interest in reviewing it. He, weirdly, seemed to want to take credit for driving me to “madness.” It was true that at the time I wrote the post, I had wanted to die, but it wasn’t over a future 1-cent-royalty book on Amazon Kindle.
But his writing about something personal in the most tacky and exploitative way didn’t help the war I was waging inside. After all, I wasn’t ready to tell everyone about my diagnosis. I hadn’t even told some members of my family, yet now, for anyone who searched me on Google—for years—his tawdry post would be the first thing to pop up. When I had job interviews, people would ask me about it. When I went on dates, the guy would bring it up. It followed me like a lingering stench, when I was trying so hard to “fake” normalcy and failing.
I fell into a deep, dark hole, believing that I was worthless if everyone knew the truth. I wasn’t at peace with my diagnosis back then, which sounded serious and scary to me. So knowing that my secrets were always one Google search away haunted me.
Then, in 2007, I decided to do something about it. I started my own blog, called the Black Snob. I often say I started the blog because I missed writing my old newspaper column, which is true. But the other reason was that I wanted it to be the first thing to come up in the Google search of my name, not the entry from the Ghost of Trolls Past.
I wanted to take control. And I did. I’m Danielle Belton, the Black Snob, not “sad girl, queen of sads; please don’t hire me because of this terrible blog post.”
Taking control of your own story is important when you’re “coming out” as someone living with a mental illness. It’s important to remember the following when confronting the reality of your diagnosis.
You are not the disease. Your mental illness is not you, just as kidney disease, asthma or diabetes is not you. But people less astute about how mental illness works will try to equate you, the individual, with your disease. Even you might make this mistake. But it’s not true. By being mentally ill, you are no more or less worthy than any allegedly “normal” person.
You don’t have to tell anyone, but you have to “tell” yourself. I went through almost a decade of anguish because I could not come to terms with the fact that I was sick. I was in deep, deep denial, and my illness would come out in all sorts of destructive, counterproductive ways. I would spend too much money, overeat or not clean my house for months. I would move to a new apartment rather than deal with the mess in the old one, believing that the mess was the problem, not me.
But my problems followed me wherever I went because I was not accepting my illness. Once I submitted to the fact that I was sick, I started on that long road to recovery. It wasn’t easy, but acknowledging that you have a problem is truly the first and most important step toward wellness.
You are in control of your story. When you finally do have to tell people, prepare yourself for the worst but hope for the best. Although my mother accepted my diagnosis almost immediately (and promptly blamed herself for it, even though it was not her fault), it took my father much longer to understand.
Some of my friends were loving and kind about it, while others stopped speaking to me altogether. I had to accept that if someone was willing to reject me over a disease that I had only a cursory control over through therapy, self-care and medication, then that person was never really my friend.
But remember, no matter how anyone responds, these responses don’t define you. You define you. You know your truth. You live it every day. Don’t let another’s warped perception of you cloud your judgment.
There’s still a heavy stigma surrounding mental illness. It has only been in recent years that more people are openly and publicly talking about it. Diagnoses are still punch lines: How many times do you hear people misuse the terms “schizophrenic” amd “bipolar” as a way to denigrate others and silence their views?
But this view doesn’t have to be your view. You do not have to internalize the negativity of others and make it a part of you. You can accept and love yourself, then find your own path to talking to others (or not) about your illness. You can take your own path to recovery—not one based on what others think, but a peace-centered path all your own.
There’s light at the end of that tunnel if you’re willing to walk it.