I came out as lesbian when I was sixteen and yet I am still coming out- every day- to people who presume I am straight until proven otherwise. Even to people who don’t presume anything at all. Every single time I say “my girlfriend” or “my partner and her family” or anything like that, to someone who doesn’t already know I’m gay, it is a kind of coming out. Coming out is not a one-off thing, it doesn’t just happen between you, and family, and friends, and then just stay where it is. It’s an ongoing process, and it happens every time you meet someone new, every time you enter into a new relationship, any time you do anything that “gives away” your sexual orientation. So, too, with mental health.
Provided I am relatively stable (and even if I am outwardly showing signs of an inner turmoil) my mental health diagnosis is not necessarily obvious to the rest of the world. A person in the street wouldn’t look at me and say “she has bipolar disorder.” I have written about the ongoing struggle with colleagues (I work in the mental health sector) referring to “them” (those with mental health problems) and “us” (those without) and the daily conscience-prick I face nodding or shaking my head at the so-called appropriate times. I take medication and at the moment I am (relatively) stable, and you can’t tell that I have bipolar just by looking at me. And so every single time I tell somebody, it is a kind of coming out. With a new friend, or a new partner, it eventually becomes inevitable that you will have to tell them something about yourself. When your “About You” section is so closely intertwined with the DSM-V, it becomes hard not to spill the beans about your mental health as well. And, unfairly, if you choose not to share you end up feeling like a liar, because such is the black-and-white world in which we live.
Recently, I was introduced to another self-harmer (I have not self-harmed in two years but I refer to myself as a “self-harmer” here in much the same way that an alcoholic will refer to him/herself as “an alcoholic” following ten years’ sobriety). She told me about how her scars were often misjudged and that every time someone sees them, it is a new kind of explanation. Another dredged-up story. That’s how I feel about mine. Today at work I was wearing a pair of ripped jeans- nothing inappropriate, nothing revealing- and a resident asked what happened to my leg. I looked down and there it was- a scar. Faced with the choice between that particular kind of “coming out” and the closet, I chose the closet. “Old story,” I said, and put the scar away. Because it was not an appropriate story for that moment. But when is it?
When is it OK to speak about mental illness and when not and who says so?
It took me a while to come out as gay at work, because I feared judgement and a lack of understanding. In the time in which I find myself now, in the place in which I find myself now, it is so much harder to come out as a person with a mental illness.