Lesson 4.3: The Art of Telling – When and Whom to Tell
In our CandleX Depression Support Group in Beijing, we have people from different backgrounds coming in to seek support and help. I have noticed one thing that most participants have in common, and that is that that people who are more out going, higher achieving or better connected seem to find it more difficult to tell others about their mental struggle.
In the previous two classes, we started the topic of “The Art of Telling”, with the goal to provide some insight on:
To tell or not to tell
The How and The What
Today is the third class in “The Art of Telling” series and we will be looking at When and Whom to Tell.
First Read: Lesson 4.2 The Art of Telling – The How and What
Step 2: Consider Whom to Tell
Talking about mental illness can be risky. When thinking of telling someone you need to weigh all the pros and cons. The positives and negatives are different for everyone and thinking them through can help you decide what’s right for you. Being able to offer emotional support is not something that everyone knows how to do. It’s a skill that takes practice. Some people may not be able to offer emotional support. If you have relatives or friends who lack this skill, that doesn’t mean they don’t love you. You might want to make a list of the people you’re considering telling. Include the people you feel closest to.
Also list the most emotionally skilled people you know, even if you don’t know them very well. Consider the names. Which of your close friends and family are most skillful at offering understanding? Which ones are best at listening or giving a hug when you’re down? What about the people who are good listeners? Which of these “A grade” people could you talk to?
Again, we’ve invited -Marco Brundelre to share his experience. Marco Brundelre is the CandleX representative that bravely shares his story to encourage others to seek help, and raise awareness on depression. For his personal experience, you can visit CandleX “My Story with Depression” column and read his full story.
Now, telling people of your condition is that first step in the process, but there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be a blowout success. The worst case scenario is to be judged or shunned by others, but we’ve covered this already: get rid of these people. Find a new job, get new friends and don’t accept abuse from family members. It’s your life, not theirs, that hangs in the balance. Remember, when you finally make that decision to take action that might make others uncomfortable, it’s because you value yourself first, and it’s important to remember that as you bravely push forward.
My own experience was that it really wasn’t nearly that scary. So far I am happy to say that I have never had to reject anyone in my life, and that everyone I have told has at least been sympathetic, is usually supportive, and if they truly understand, is incredibly compassionate. Even at work. But, I also recognize that I have been very, very lucky. Many people do not have the social network that I have been able to build with good, decent people. I am very blessed in that regard, but maybe that’s happens when you, mostly, stay open to good people coming into your life, and you assume the best in people (until they obviously prove otherwise). The closest problem I have had actually is with my parents, who love me deeply but are still inexplicably convinced that even after 5 separate diagnoses of Bipolar including one intensive psychological evaluation, I am actually ADHD, and I need to see a specialist. Fortunately, I am not completely insane. I did not listen to my parent’s bizarre ideas, only the good ones.
There is quite a difference in the reaction you will receive from different groups of people, and this is what I have discovered. There are three basic groups (maybe more but I really like the number 3 so we’re just going to roll with that): those who understand, those who want to but can’t, and those who won’t. The first two have become my allies, but my easiest support came from the first. And do you know who are in that first group? People with other mental illnesses (shocking!). These are the people that can relate to you immediately, that will open up because you are unlikely to judge each other, that may have tools for you to use in your struggle, and when things get really bad and you start talking about some seriously scary s**t, have probably had the same thoughts and can be right there with you to bring you back down to Earth. And how do you find these people? You find them by coming out about your problems.
My entire social support group of fellow mental illness sufferers came from just being honest to everyone around me. People are afraid to talk about their personal problems, but when they know you truly understand what they are going through, they will start to open up to you, and you’ve gained a new ally. You can help each other. And I gave this support group a name: the Club. A club where you would need to be on the inside to speak and understand the same language, but it was a language that those outside could at least listen to.
And it’s a somewhat more difficult experience working with those on the outside who are kind and supportive but, let’s be honest here, don’t quite get it. And how could they? Dealing with a chemical imbalance is something that has to be experienced in order to appreciate how debilitating it is. You’re not sad; you’re depressed. People who are sad don’t stay in bed all day because they have given in to the meaninglessness of life and the best they can hope to accomplish in a 24 hour period is making a cup of coffee. You’re not worried; you’re having a panic attack. People who are nervous don’t start looking for the exits on a plane because they’ve just lost it and need to get out immediately, whatever the cost. No, quite frankly they don’t understand, and probably never will. But, that doesn’t mean that they won’t listen. And that’s the crucial difference between one who is an ally and one who isn’t: They try. It takes a bit of work for them to really become a resource to you but you can get there with patience. Explain to them the differences between emotions and chemical imbalances. Get them to understand that you probably need more sleep, and shouldn’t be drinking too much alcohol. And, if necessary, explain to them that someone who is just frustrated and jokes about killing themselves is worlds apart from someone who has started taking active steps to complete a plan that they’ve been thinking about for months. I have created several of these allies, and I love these people.
There was one ally in particular who really made a great impact on my life. She, as far as I know, does not suffer from a mental illness. But she listened, and connected me with someone who did. And that’s how I was brought into CandleX.
Step 3: Consider When to Tell
If you are compelled to disclose during a period where you are unwell, try to locate the most supportive person in your life. This person can help you tell others. Otherwise, the time to tell someone is going to depend on several things:
When you’re well. Most people only tell when they don’t have a choice anymore. One common scenario is being brought to an emergency room in the hospital because of suicide attempts. Instead, we should tell earlier when we can still think logically. This helps provide a calm environment to introduce whomever you speak with to adjust to the idea, especially if they don’t know a lot about mental illness.
When it serves a purpose. People disclose for different reasons, often depending on whom they’re telling. You may tell a loved one because they’ve worried about your behavior or thinking. You may tell a friend so that they understand why you sometimes can’t hang out with them, or if you worry they think you’re growing distant. You may tell your employer in order to receive accommodations at work. There are nearly as many reasons to disclose as there are to stay silent. Different people have to decide when and if the risk is right.
Don’t wait until you are “ready”. For people who are already seeing therapists, you are in good hands already, hopefully. However, a large proportion of people with depression still do not go to a therapist, do not accept that they may suffer from depression, and there’s no way that they’d tell anyone. So, for this particular group. Our advice is that don’t wait until you are ready. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Beat down the fear. As long as you follow the points that we list in this guidance, you will be fine.
Why not do it now?
There’s really no great time to reveal to someone that you are struggling, except for now. Don’t wait. I waited for 16 years, and nearly died as a result. There are opportune moments for sure, but you have to create those moments, not wait for them to happen. The two times I waited had potentially disastrous consequences, but in the end everything, luckily, turned out well for me. When I was first hospitalized I told everyone because I really didn’t have a choice, but I could have saved myself years of suffering if I had just spoken up in high school. Immediately after doing so I discovered what a wonderful family and group of friends I had. And when work found out, it’s because I had a manic episode on an antidepressant that I had essentially prescribed for myself (stupid, stupid stupid…) and I nearly lost it in the office. Immediately after my boss and colleagues helped me out when I needed to make hospital appointments and leave the office for doctor visits. I was even granted medical leave.
Speaking up and seeking help are not actions to be taken lightly, but they are necessary ones. Choose wisely, speak wisely, act wisely, but there’s nothing more dangerous than waiting until it’s over. Choose life on your own terms, not your mental illness’.
We have now completed the lesson on “The Art of Telling”. Being able to talk about it is the first step towards healing. For those who need to prepare themselves, writing about it is a good option. You can read our CandleX community member’s stories in our “My Story with Depression” column. We encourage you to write yours too, and perhaps take an extra step and share it with us. Don’t forget, you can always get help from our mental health peer support group that’s held every other Tuesday.
Stay open, stay healthy.