I don’t know what it is about mental illness in particular that means that, not only do you have to live with the damn thing, but you also have to spend about half of your time lying about it. Oh, sorry. Not lying, just putting a “positive spin” on it. You know, so that no one will think you’re actually crazy, or anything…
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by someone not to divulge too much about my health, in case it stops me from being accepted. It’s usually when I’m entering a new professional setting, such as a job or a volunteer placement. Ironically, it’s in these environments that it’s very, very important to me to know that I’m going to be accepted and supported, illness or no illness, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult for me to stay in that environment anyway. Not telling someone about a health condition doesn’t make that health condition go away. Neither does putting a positive spin on something which is not a positive thing in the slightest. Even if you do manage to convince a potential employer that “it’s OK, I’m not that bad, really”, how are they going to react if a bad day should come along? They’re only going to be confused and irritated because you said you were basically fine.
I’m sick to the back teeth of having to come up with all these fairy stories about my health in order to fit in and not cause too much of a problem for other people. If I had a health condition like asthma or diabetes, I’d never dream of lying about it to a potential employer. For one thing, it’d be irresponsible (if something were to happen to me, the people around me would definitely need to know what was going on), and for another I simply wouldn’t have to. There just isn’t the stigma involved. There wouldn’t be any pen-fiddling, or awkward looks or “I’m not sure we can support you here…” type comments. It’d just be accepted as something I have to live with.
The fact is, in an environment where people are understanding and supportive, my depression affects me about as much as the flu or stomach bugs might affect the rest of the staff (ie the occasional day here or there where you might have to call in sick or you won’t be at your best in the workplace). But that’s in a truly supportive environment. In a place where people really don’t understand, I might have to put up with whispering, back-biting, people giving me a wide berth (because they don’t want to catch the crazy), people ignoring me, or not making an effort to talk to me as much as the other members of staff. All of those things have an enormous effect on my health, which means that there might be an increase of times where I feel awful, can’t make it in, or simply can’t do my job properly while I’m at work. Then, of course, management make the judgment that I really am incompetent, rather than just dealing with a difficult environment which is having a detrimental effect on my health. And after that, it’s not long before I’m shown the door.
Some people might say, “Well, if you just don’t tell them, then the whispering and back-biting wouldn’t start in the first place.” Not true. Even in situations where I haven’t said a word about my health, all it takes is one lousy day for people to start cottoning on to the fact that I might have a health condition. Or they might just assume I’m useless, or lazy, or just doing it for attention, because I haven’t been honest. All of which contributes to a toxic environment, without me having to say a word about my health. Plus if things ever got really bad (as they have occasionally), my manager may then turn around and say, “Well, why weren’t you honest in the first place? We might have been able to help you.” It’s a situation where you feel damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But what really annoys me is when people who are supposed to be on my side (friends, family, even health professionals) start giving me little pep talks about what I should and shouldn’t say before I’ve even set foot in a new workplace.
Some people advise me not to use the word “depression”. Some people say I shouldn’t mention any days off I’ve had because of it. Some people tell me I shouldn’t say anything at all (possibly because they’ve assumed that as I can obtain a job interview at all, I haven’t got anything to complain about anyway). I was once advised by an employment agency who work specifically with people with disabilities that I should only say my depression is “mild” when talking about it, I guess because that conjures up nice images of “just feeling a bit blue” rather than being a total debilitated wreck who can’t string a sentence together (as occasionally I am). These were people who I thought would want to challenge stigma surrounding disabled people in the workplace, but everything once again had to be watered down and sanitized for the wider world. They worked on the principle of “we understand, but no one else will, so hush up.”
I know that when I receive these pep talks, these people aren’t being malicious, they’re simply trying to protect me. They know, as well as I do, that people can be very judgmental and uncomprehending when it comes to mental health problems and by being honest I may be inadvertently creating a negative impression of myself before I’ve had a chance to show what I can do. But I disagree that I should have to hush up in order to make things better for myself. Living with depression isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s just an irritating factor that unfortunately I need to take into consideration. It doesn’t make me any less capable overall, it just means sometimes I may not be at my best and I need the people around me to understand that. Because then the times where I will be at my best will radically increase.
I believe that by keeping quiet or putting a “positive spin” on things, I’m simply adding to the problem. This doesn’t encourage anyone to understand mental illness, it just means I’ll have played along with someone else’s rules for my own gain (which will probably blow up in my face anyway). I’ll still be ill, and I’ll still be working for someone who not only doesn’t understand, but now doesn’t have the inclination to try and understand either because I’ve essentially shoved myself into a box for their benefit. It means I’ll be exhausted from trying to put a brave face on everything, as well as adding to the common misconception that having depression means you’re weak or incapable. Feeling like I can “own” my experience, by being honest about the extent to which it affects me (no more, no less), is an important part of getting better. I hope that this will mean I end up working with better people as a result.