Airing My Dirty Laundry

18 Aug

TW for talk of suicide

Since writing (or being featured in) a number of pieces recently about mental health this week – namely, this one about the challenges I face as a parent living with mental illness, and this one in The Star about the Mystery Room posters in the TTC – I’ve had a number of commenters asking why I’m choosing to “air my dirty laundry.” Why, they wonder, do I want to share such personal information on the internet? Don’t I value my privacy? Or am I just hungry for attention?

What these commenters are really asking is: why do you talk about things as shameful and embarrassing as depression, anxiety and suicide?

What these commenters are really saying is: the things that you have written here has made me uncomfortable, although I can’t quite articulate why.

What these commenters are really wondering is: how can she be mentally ill and look so normal – what separates her from me?

The answer to that last question is: nothing. Nothing separates me from you. I am a person who gets up every morning and goes to work. I have a family, including a son and a husband. I have a lot of amazing friends. I have a social life. I am funny and smart and will talk your ear off about anything from Star Trek to Frida Kahlo to why Amy March is the worst character in the history of ever. I can bake a decent loaf of bread. I like drawing funny pictures of animals wearing flower crowns. I’m a bit of a clothes-horse and I own way too many sundresses, which I can only wear for, like, two months of the year. I do a weird little shimmy-dance whenever I get excited about things.

Of course mental illness affects how I live my life, but I am not my mental illness. Living with depression and anxiety certainly presents its own unique challenges, but those challenges don’t define who I am. I kept reading comments from people who wondered why I’d chosen to have a biological child, given the risk of passing on my messed up genes. And I get what they’re saying, because the last thing I want is for my kid to suffer, but also the implications of that question are pretty fucked up. I mean, they’re basically saying that a life with mental illness isn’t a life worth living. But it is; I promise you that it is. As much as I’ve had moments of vicious anguish and misery, I’ve also had too many wonderful experiences to count. I’ve felt so much joy that my weepy little heart could burst. Living with depression doesn’t mean that I never feel the good things. I do. Even if they’re not what I usually write about, I really do.

If I were given the chance to go back and, knowing everything that I know now, decide whether or not I should be born, I would choose to be alive every damn time. 

Talking about mental health makes people uncomfortable. I get that. Plumbing the depths of tangled mess that is the human psyche can seem pretty terrifying; suicide, to anyone who’s never experienced suicidal feelings, seems utterly incomprehensible. We’re programmed to fear and hate suicide, because it goes against everything that we’re supposed to want – to propagate, to survive, to go on even against the toughest odds. We might even feel the same revulsion about suicide as we feel about murder, which makes sense – it’s the same act, really, just turned inward. Which somehow makes it even worse. And then there’s all the guilt that the surviving family members feel – wondering what they could or should have done, trying to quiet the little voice that says, “this is all your fault, you just weren’t enough.”

So we don’t want to talk about it. Which would be fine, except that we really need to talk about it.

The actual symptoms of any mental illness are bad enough, but they’re made much worse by the additional stigma and shame that people feel. If no one talks about this stuff, then it’s so much easier to believe that you’re a total freak who’s going through something that no one else has ever experienced. Part of why I write about mental health is that people often see themselves in my thoughts and feelings – I often receive messages from readers who have experienced this sort of shock of recognition. These people are always so goddamned grateful to know that it’s not just them, that they’re not out there doing it all on their own. So many of us are out there living with the same shit too, and a burden shared is made lighter, and misery loves company, and all those other obnoxious old platitudes.

Talking about mental illness – especially personal stories of mental illness – also makes it easier for people to reach out and get help. It’s one thing to publish a list of crisis lines – which, by the way, I have no problem with and I think is a totally valid response to something like Robin Williams’ suicide; absolutely no shade on the millions of folks acknowledging what happened by sharing that list – and quite another to say, “I’ve been there, I know how it feels, I’ve felt that way too. Let’s talk about the best way to help you feel better.” For many people with mental illness, talking about it is the first step they take to recovering. But they’re not going to talk about it if no one else talks about it, you know?

So I guess that’s why it doesn’t feel like talking about my mental health is tantamount to airing my dirty laundry. Instead, to extend the metaphor, it feels like I’m just hanging my regular old laundry out to dry. And I’m hanging it somewhere visible, like a laundry line strung up between two buildings or something. And everything – absolutely everything – that I wear is on that line. My cute little sundresses are there, as well as my jeans, my shorts, and a variety of tops. But my underwear is also hung up there – even the big old comfy granny panties – and my bras and thongs are there too, waving like flags in the wind. Because we all wear underwear. Everyone knows that people wear underwear. Everyone knows that underwear needs to be washed and dried before you wear it again. So why should it be embarrassing to hang it outside?

Everyone knows that mental illness exists; everyone knows the devastating effect that it can have, both on the people suffering from it and their friends and families. This is not new information – it’s something that we’ve known forever and ever. But the hush-hush way we’ve developed of discussing it and dealing with it clearly aren’t working. So let’s finally start talking about it, because that’s the only chance that we have of beating it.

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30 Responses to “Airing My Dirty Laundry”

  1. Annie August 18, 2014 at 2:08 am #

    Thank you for your honesty. I’ve read so many great pieces of writing on mental health this week, and all of them have had a beautiful kernel of truth that spoke to me and my own situation. In your piece, it was the reminder that life with mental illness is GOOD. And when I battle the voices in my head or can’t stop worrying that everything I’ve messed up in the past is going to ruin my future, I, like you, still infinitely prefer to be alive. And I appreciate the reminder that I do.

  2. ashleykathleened August 18, 2014 at 2:11 am #

    Love this….everything you said…I loooovvve reading yours and many others words through their journeys, I love sharing mine…it’s worth it, for the people who get a sense of comfort and truth, beauty and grace in being human. Being connected, like I feel reading your words. Air it girl!!! ❤️

  3. annette August 18, 2014 at 2:18 am #

    I am regularly impressed with your posts, but thank you for being so perfectly on point with this post. I found myself smiling as I read, loving the way you eloquently and elegantly normalized mental health struggles. if more people could write and speak like you do about what they deal with, the stigma would fade much more quickly than it is.

  4. Melodear August 18, 2014 at 2:24 am #

    Let s/he without dirty laundry cast the first bleach. Shame is not a necessary component of experiencing an emotional crisis. It’s put on us ..and it’s toxic and stigma inducing. It building the foundation for discrimination. You know, discrimination for be human.

    I’d wash my dirty laundry with yours any day.

  5. Kathleen August 18, 2014 at 2:58 am #

    Amy March is THE WORST!!!

  6. Jessica August 18, 2014 at 3:03 am #

    I find it strange that people would question why you share your illness with all of us, because, well, you tend to be open and frank about pretty much everything – hence the popularity of your blog.

    I am too living with mental illness. My dad was a bipolar schizophrenic and my mom had Aspergers, now I’ve passed on both to one of my children. It’s so freaken common that people are afflicted to one degree or another in some way or more, yet it’s such a misunderstood topic. Keep talking I say! :)

  7. Rebecca Meyer August 18, 2014 at 3:12 am #

    Thank you so much for writing this. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are things that millions of people struggle with, yet the stigma that surrounds these illnesses makes people feel “different” or “weak” for dealing with these illnesses. The stigma does nothing but make it worse. Talking openly about our struggles is not airing dirty laundry; it is helping people. Thank you for helping people, and showing everyone reading your posts that they are not alone. That means the world, and can save someone’s life.

  8. Mario Savioni August 18, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    I think as a writer, and more importantly, you realize that people personalize your laundry and purely reason from the facts you provide, and that response is like one you might get when you read a good novel. I almost most never “see” the actual writer. What I hear and see is a world the writer has created and I sense the narrator/protagonist.

    This is my response to you. We don’t respond to your mental illness, per se, what we respond to is our experience with mental health. This is mostly because we don’t know you. We only know you through your writing. What is starting to come through with repeated assertions is a defensiveness, real or imagined?

    The Internet, like a book, is nothing but a medium for your expression and because we can comment, you can get our responses. The relationship is two-way.

    Sadly, I don’t think we really care about your laundry, at least for me, this post and others of yours have provided grist for my mental mill.

    I think, as a writer, I understand your need to tell the truth. That’s what we try to do. We can only work from a point of view that expresses what is real to us, what we know. We often kiss our privacy goodbye, and certainly in our love of personal expression, we’ve managed to leave a trail a mile wide that some psychologist could use to make a fair assessment of our personalities. We are, in fact, lying on a couch.

    Frankly, I am excited and stimulated by your posts. I do feel, however, that I am mostly ignored, probably thankfully, because I want to appear competent, but I may not be because I am alone at a desk trying to communicate what I feel and think.

    The greatest risk is that others personalize my responses, which are nothing more than attempts to get at my truth in response to yours and if we are both defensive and able to see each other’s weaknesses (seeming “dirty laundry”) then we may want to protect ourselves because our airing was done on the side of wanting to be completely honest and we believe in honesty and take chances with honesty because we hope the world is that kind of place.

    I don’t feel like you are just hungry for attention. What I am afraid for is that in your airing you don’t realize and respect or assume that we might be airing our laundry too. We hope you wouldn’t take us “personally,” as well and attack us. Let’s face it, we are writers, and writers are a lonely group because we speak to ourselves, basically, or to a screen with a referential/reflective strategy.

    I also never got that what you were saying was shameful and embarrassing, just as subject matter related to depression, anxiety, and suicide.

    Again, I am not made uncomfortable by the subject matter of your posts, I am made uncomfortable by the risk that what I might say will get a condemnation, when in fact we are in a dialog that is almost never about you, but about us, so we air our laundry together.

    That is a good question about your mental illness and my responses as indicative of mental illness too, but I hope not. Mainly because I don’t perceive your post as an example of mental illness, but as strong assertions of interesting points that happen to be about mental illness. Still, beating this mental illness horse to death and my taking each assertion of yours and responding to it is causing me to question my sanity, mostly because I obviously have too much time on my hands. Perhaps, like you, this site is a means of the kind of expression we engage in as writers, as people, who like to socialize in this manner.

  9. Ruth August 18, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Great post, thank you! :-)

  10. bookmole August 18, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Seriously, I am gobsmacked that people wonder why you talk about your personal experiences, which happen to include mental illness. What else can you talk about but your life and what affects you?

    Keep up with these great post, Belle. I may not get round to reading them as soon as you write them, but I do, eventually, get the time to WP to my heart’s content.

    And my neighbours have never, in the thirteen or so years they have been my neighbours, hung their underwear on the line. This now makes me feel a little uneasy about hanging my undies out, so now I make sure they are hung on the inside lines of my rotary dryer.

  11. Josie August 18, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    Preach it, sister! One mentally ill Mama to another – amen.

  12. nicciattfield August 18, 2014 at 11:48 am #

    Well done for writing against stigma, because it’s the shame of seeking help, or asking for help, which can kill sometimes.

  13. prideinmadness August 18, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Keep sharing your dirty laundry!

  14. prideinmadness August 18, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    Also, it’s not dirty. It’s your life!

  15. betternotbroken August 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    I think everyone has struggles with mental health on some level and when society comes to recognize this we will all be much better off. The people who perpetuate the myth mental health issues are only for he weak do not work on sustaining and nurturing their own mental health and are the ones whose denial and actions often do a great deal of damage to others because empathy is a vital component of mental health.

  16. Just Me August 18, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Thank you for being so brave. That’s what I think it takes to talk about It. I can’t talk about It to anyone for fear they would discover how weak I am and what a fraud I am. I survive by acting okay and looking okay. It’s an act; I’m a coward. That’s why I can’t talk about it.

  17. MO'D August 18, 2014 at 3:36 pm #

    Fair balls on squaring the whys with why nots.

    Just out of interest – from where/whom do these queries arise?

  18. tendernessontheblock August 18, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Fair balls on squaring the whys with the why nots.

    Just out of curiosity – from whom/where do these queries arise?

    Context counts for a lot also, so I would like to more know, if you wouldn’t mind elaborating. Thanks.

  19. John Draper August 18, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    I thought your article was incredibly brave. The fact that it took bravery to admit a mental illness tells you a lot about the stigma attached to mental illness. No one would have blinked an eye if you “admitted” to having diabetes. We can make medicines for anything below our neck and it’s no problem. From the neck up, though?

    Have medications not been effective for you? They saved my life when I started taking them 20-plus years ago. At the time, the medicine–for OCD — wasn’t legal in the US, so I had to drive over the US border and pick up the medicine in White Rock, BC, and then “smuggle” it back into the US.

  20. Jupiter August 19, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on crazy dumbsaint of the mind.

  21. Donna Gottschalk August 19, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    Thank-You Belle-Jar ,
    I say ( forgive me ) ” Fk ‘em “. One of the reasons it is important to share …is the info feedback you can get . Somebody out there can have just the right perspective to turn a bleak situ around . Unfortunately , one takes the chance of opening up to the arrogant judgmental types , or even worse …predators .
    It’s a brave thing you do .

  22. starserendipity August 19, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on starserendipity.

  23. LadyBird Magpie of Parkdale August 20, 2014 at 1:15 am #

    Keep on keepin on! Thank you for being you and for writing about what it’s like.

  24. izzy82 August 20, 2014 at 3:02 am #

    Thanks for all these mental health posts! I like to think I am pretty open about my mental health and I have developed coping strategies to deal with societal stigma – but I also know that there are aspects of my mental health that I don’t feel at all able to share – because of the shame and stigma. But hearing others’ stories helps and brings me closer to closure on my own feelings of shame. I spent one wretched summer in extreme emotional distress/agony and if it hadn’t been for other people’s courage to share, I could never have healed as quickly as I did. Thank you.

  25. owlanddove August 20, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    I read somewhere (I apologize, O Philosophizer Extraordinaire, whoever you are, for forgetting) something about “putting on your brave”. She (I do happen to remember that the author was a woman <3) was talking about deciding to go into the world without her usual mask of steel and pretense of having it all together; in other words, being confident, but not fearless. Fearlessness, if you ask me, is a made-up ideal meant to make us — us being me and everyone I've ever gotten close enough with to talk about the important stuffs of life — feel less-than, inadequate, closer to empty than whole.

    You're not airing "dirty laundry": You're revealing what is a great and beautiful truth. People, inevitably, are going to believe what they believe. But, contrary to popular defeatist notions, saying what needs to be said will, eventually, lead to change.

    I commend what you're doing. You're putting on your brave, and I intend to do the same. Thank you :)

  26. Mary Kendall September 3, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

    Beautifully written and expressed. Thank you for your very open and honest sharing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Open Conversation - Stigma | ON OUR OWN OF MONTGOMERY COUNTY - August 18, 2014

    […] A blogger in Canada has been very vocal about addressing stigma through open conversation.  Two excerpts from her blog “The Belle Jar” are posted below.  If you would like to read the full post in can be found here. […]

  2. Airing My Dirty Laundry - On The Discussion of Mental Health - - August 20, 2014

    […] This article originally appeared on The Belle Jar. […]

  3. This Week I’ve Been Reading #9 | Cornflakegirl's Musings - August 24, 2014

    […] Anne Theriault (aka The Belle Jar) on why she is so open about her mental health issues – Airing My Dirty Laundry […]

  4. “I am not my mental illness.” | Cryptic Philosopher - September 30, 2014

    […] Thériault, “Airing My Dirty Laundry,” The Belle […]

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