Coming Clean

Coming Clean (click for source)

Sometimes (perhaps if and when we are so lucky) there comes a time and a need to tell some (perhaps unsuspecting) soul about the things we think, the things we feel, the things we hear, the meds we may or may not take. My hunch is that it’s a conversation that some of us have practiced and that others have for the first time each time. Maybe there are long versions and short versions we tell. Maybe it’s something some of us have done more than a few times and something some of us have never really done.

To whom, when, and how do you come clean?

Regardless of the differences, it’s not easy. And wrapped up in its difficulty are fears and misconceptions and persistent stigma and questions of responsibility. Compounding that difficulty is the understanding that this conversation crosses multiple thresholds, all of which constitute points of no return. Nothing said can ever be unsaid — and whether it’s with a friend or colleague or someone we’re starting to date, if a relationship will change after mental illness is disclosed, it will stay changed. We cross our fingers and hope for the best.

As I wrote “…and hope for the best,” I realized I have spent most of my adult life not knowing what it is that I’m hoping for in that conversation, not knowing what I thought the “best case scenario” really looks like. And, so I want to ask: What is it you hope for when you come clean?

To take that question just a tad further, For whose benefit do we talk about our illnesses? And what do you personally gain from it?

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18 comments
  1. Meredith said:

    I hope for understanding and nonjudgment from the other person. From me, I hope for a sense that honesty was the best policy and I am freer for it.

    I have talked about my bipolar to connect with others talking about people in their lives with mental illness. I have spoken of it to help explain my past and how far I’ve come in the hopes of being understood and accepted (doesn’t always work, depends on who the other is). Personally, I gain being known more fully by the people in my life. I believe, after all, that being known is the least we can do and seems to be something I really want despite myself. That being said, I am only as known as the other will know me, but at least I can offer the bits and pieces that make me – it’s all I can control.

    I am acutely aware of the limitations within a relationship in which I am less known by the other. Cases in point, my parents do not know I’m bipolar and 2 of the 4 are psychologists. Hence, my relationships with them are pretty superficial. They have no idea and most of that is due to my not telling.

    • said:

      “…and I am freer for it.” Remarkable. Do you feel the same irony or tension I do in the fear of expected/possible confinement of a poor reaction, the confinement presented by a reaction that assumes it understands, the confinement that comes with the label? In the whole “expect the worst, hope for the best,” those are the poles, aren’t they? That the worst is some confinement and the best is some liberation?

      And it’s so true — that we are only as known (1) as well as we make ourselves known and (2) as well as the other will know us.

      • Meredith said:

        Yes, I feel that irony. That is the tension propelling the choice to share or not to share. It is an individual decision, both of the teller and the tellee. And do we ever know who we are telling?

  2. said:

    Perhaps it goes without saying that I’m in this process right now. I’m lucky enough to say that this conversation is a process, that it will be multiple conversations, that one of those conversations will include a joint visit to this site.

    There’s a reason this topic is called “Coming Clean,” and I’m hopeful that it’s not a universal feeling. The process of full disclosure (and there have been part disclosures and half disclosures and minimal disclosures and barely disclosures, which are all very different than full disclosure…which perhaps there has never really been before for me) is somewhat terrifying. I can say that I currently do not fear the reaction from another, but I can’t say that I do not fear the reaction from myself. And perhaps this is specific to me or my experience or my histories or my particular brand of my particular disorder, but fully disclosing really means “coming clean” about some of the things I’ve done and how I feel about them. And it’s two-fold: On one hand there is the owning up to those things I’m ashamed of; on the other there is a new hope that the disclosure might begin to cleanse me of them.

    • Meredith said:

      What i found after one coming clean experience is that I wanted to explain those things I was ashamed of and had grown out of. I wanted my disorder to make that sense to the other person. It did not. I realized then that the situation in which I was in relied on those things being a part of me, my personality, and my soul, not some disorder that can be helped. I had to make piece within myself for my reaction to that reality.

  3. I think I’ve come clean to a few people I’m close to, and to more people I don’t know at all. I started doing public speaking about my mental illness a few years ago. There is an easiness about coming clean that way, because you generally never have to see most of those people again, and you don’t have to worry about their opinions of you. Although, once I did it for the entire staff of the mental health center where I am a client, and I do see those people on a very regular basis. I have never felt judged by them, at least not much, and I got a lot of accolades for telling my story publicly. Police officers are surprisingly receptive to the speeches my group gives them, as part of Crisis Intervention Team Training, and I really love doing it every year.

    But when it comes to really coming clean….I have told part of my story to some people I respect and would like to consider friends, but who are not close friends. And the person who knows all of my story is a former roommate from a group home I lived in six years ago. I feel like I have a codependent relationship with this person. She and I have nothing in common other than we have mental illnesses and we had some bad relationships a few years ago with men, so the time we spend together gets awfully boring because we don’t share common interests. However, I find myself drawn into talking to this person and telling her my secrets and my story because, I guess, I don’t have a lot of other people to talk to about my personal stuff. I feel like she understands what most people don’t understand, and for that reason, I’m drawn to her, and I think for the same reason, she’s drawn to me. Deep down, I don’t think either of us truly wants to be friends with the other, but we are, nonetheless. I think this is partly because I do feel the need to have a place to express my truth.

    In my work place I don’t come clean. In college, I don’t come clean. I can’t. I’m scared, and rightfully so, of the consequences of that. So I have secrets. It’s odd to be someone who does public speaking about mental illness but doesn’t tell the coworkers who sit next to her everyday any details about her real life. It makes me feel phony and inauthentic, and resentful, and I don’t like that. But I know that there is so much stigma, and these people are not people who would be understanding or who would keep private information private, rather, it would get all over the office, and I just don’t need that kind of crap to deal with in my life. So sometimes, I just don’t come clean. I stay dirty. It’s easier, to be honest with you.

    When I came clean with one old friend, I wrote her a long letter, a really detailed letter, a letter that talked about psychosis and suicide attempts, and a letter that apologized for not being in her wedding when I was too psychotic to be there. Her response? She never wrote back. That was a few months ago and I let it go and then, finally, since she has already cut me out of her life, I ceremoniously defriended her on Facebook the other day because I don’t need people who can’t handle my truth and who don’t care about my existence to be in my life at all.

    I guess I am contradicting myself here, but hopefully you can understand what I’m saying.

    • said:

      Jen…are there any takeaways from your experiences discussing your illness in a “public speaking” capacity that you’ve been able to apply to talking with friends, family, or other closer relationships? Or are the contexts too different? I wonder whether there are ways to frame the discussion when the audience isn’t directly responding that can be applied to one-on-one discussions…or whether the very fact that the audience isn’t directly responding makes the situations incomparable? In the same vein, is there a sort of confidence in talking about it that you can take from public speaking opportunities and apply to closer relationships…or even vice versa?

      • That’s an interesting question. I think for me talking to an audience is kind of empowering because they are generally there for the purpose of learning about mental illnesses, whether they be police officers or high school students or mental health professionals, so they have some either real or imposed interest in the topic. And I am basically there to teach them about what it’s like to have this illness. So I tell my story in an effort to, not only feel validated for myself, but to create awareness for everyone who has any mental illness since we’ve all been silenced and stigmatized and shunned in one way or another. So, for that public speaking stuff, I feel like I have a higher purpose, a duty, even, that I am fulfilling when I do it, and even though I get really nervous doing it, I feel like I am doing my part to try to make a difference and combat the stigma.

        When I’m talking to individuals, it’s different because they don’t always have an interest in the subject at all. My family, for example, has little interest. The people I am friends wtih through the feminist organization I’m involved in largely express no interest. So if I was to start a conversation with them about the illness, even though some of htem know that I have the illness and have never really cared to talk to me about it, then I would feel rather arrogant and as if I was trying to get attention for myself for self gratification. And I think that is how I’d be viewed.

        It would be different if I felt like more people wanted to know my story, who know me, but….I’m just not getting that impression from anybody. Then there are some people I know who don’t kow me well enough to know at all about the illness, don’t even know I have an illness, and with them, it would be really hard to create this discussion because I just woudln’t know where to start, and since I’m not close with those people i wouldn’t really feel comfortable doing it.

        But you do make a good point here. If I could get some of that confidence I have when I feel like I’m out there making a difference by exposing myself through my story, and put that into private conversatoins, maybe it would be easier to start those
        conversations. It’s just hard when you don’t feel like poeple are interested at all. Or when you know they wouldn’t “get it” easily at all.

        With my coworkers, we just don’t have long conversations about personal things, so it would be hard to just briefly mention that I have this serious illness that has deeply affected all aspects of my life for many ears, you know?

        • said:

          It really is so very true that the real difference can be whether we feel that those listening have a vested interest in actually listening. I still don’t know how to address any of the MI-related issues with coworkers, which has and continues to cause some difficulty for me. Ugh.

  4. said:

    So, Alan Smithee asked me a question a couple days ago that I think might apply to this discussion (if not, I might start a new discussion for it). She asked “Why the hell do I try to talk to nonMI people about MI?” It wasn’t so much a question about “coming clean” per se, but about the discussions we have with our close friends, those who know about our diagnoses and disorders who seem to try to be sympathetic, but really still can’t seem to understand or wrap their heads around the reality of our illnesses…or in Alan’s particular example, wrap their heads around the fact that we battle actual legitimate illnesses. Thoughts for Alan?

    • I struggle with this too, as I mentioned in my reply to backward E above here. I do think there is a legitimate reason for trying to talk to them about it, which is to combat the stigma that keeps us all down and enshrouds us all in silence and allows society to ignore us and discard us, like our pain and our struggles don’t matter, because society is largely completely ignorant about the realities of mental illness, and they need to wake up to the facts. IF we can tell our stories and enlighten some folks, then I think we are making a difference in the world, not just for our individual selves but for our collective selves, all of us with these illnesses, all of us who have been silenced or ignored or endured discrimination or mistreatment or been misunderstood, or misdiagnosed or undiagnosed or made fun of and stigmatized and called “crazy”. If we can combat THAT, then we’re doing a service to humankind. And I think that’s why it’s worth doing.

      Now, when it comes to actually doing it, that gets very hard, especially with friends who don’t understand. That is why I have very few close friends, I think. The friends I do have I don’t feel really know me well because they don’t know the truth about my life and what I deal with. And for most of them, except for the few who do know, I don’t think they care to understand it. So I do understan that feeling of, “why bother?”. I don’t have an easy answer for this.

      • In addition to the above, I would like to add, that there is another reason for telling our story, and that’s the desire to have a witness. When we suffer and no one really acknowledges that fact, then it gets incredibly frustrating and lonely and our truth is denied rather than legitimized by the people who should be there as witnesses, there to say, “yes, this happened to you, and I believe you, and I’m sorry.” I think with any kind of major life difficulty, it is normal to desire to have a witness, a person who says , yes, it happened, rather than having yourself surrounded by folks who deny the truth of your life because they don’t know about it or they don’t understand it. And I find that really hard in college classes right now where we’re discussing mental illness and homelessness, and I don’t feel safe there in stating some basic facts of my life because I don’t want to be judged by these people. But while I’m keeping silent, all the while I’m getting angry about it, because, damn it, I went through hell and I want to be able to explain it to these social work students so they really GET it, from someone who has actually been through it. And I can’t do that. So it’s frustrating. I’m not trying to get off on a tangent about me, here, I was trying to refer to Alan’s questions, but perhaps you can understand what I mean. I was just writing about it earlier in my blog.

    • Meredith said:

      This is closely related to Jen’s comment above as well. I also do not speak of it with close friends. They don’t want to hear about the struggles. They don’t see the behaviors, so basically they don’t get it. Not being judgmental, just trying to explain what I think may be going on for some of my friends. They see a different persona altogether (except when I go mental [happening less and less] around them). But for the most part, my issues and struggles are kept within my family. They are the lucky ones who experience it and know me for everything I am. They are the ones who understand to the degree they can. To tell you the truth, my best friends (other than my wife) are online. Sad, but true. I guess only sad because we are “supposed” to have physical friends. My physical friendships were born out of the kids going to school together. Now they don’t. So I don’t see the parents as much even though I really like them. I don’t consider that close. And I could do better as far as real goes.

  5. I don’t have more than two close friends offline myself. I have “friends” that are definitely more like acquaintances than friends, offline, but not close friends. Both the friends that are close do know about my illness, but in one case, she knows me because she has a similar illness and we met in a group home for women with psychiatric illnesses six years ago, where we were roommates. We really don’t have anything much in common though, outside the realm of illness and how it impacted our lives. I don’t find this to be a good basis for a close friendship. The other friend I have I do know offline, but I mostly only talk to him through email and never actually seem him much. He was my professor when I was a lot younger than I am now – about 16 years ago, and he has been a really supportive person, and listening ear through a lot of my struggles, even after my other close friends (who were all online friends) stopped talking to me, except for one, because of my illness and my weird behaviors. So I understand what you’re saying, Meredith. It is not weird to me to have online friends who know you better than offline friends. For years when I was psychotic as well as really sick physically and rarely went anywhere, I had no offline friends at all, only online ones, and they were, for a while, better friends to me than most of the real friends I had prior to that ever were. But they didn’t know what was going on when I became psychotic and three of them chose to cut me out of their lives, which was very painful, though I kind of understand why they felt the need to do that.

    • This comment was supposed to be a reply to Meredith’s comment above it; sorry I posted it in the wrong place!

  6. Perhaps the topic of making friends would be good for another thread? We seem to be discussing tht here. I think all my life I have found it extremely difficult to form friendships at all, and I used to think this was just my personality, but now I think it had a lot more to do with what was going on with me mentally than my personality itself (although of course where personality ends and illness begins can be a tricky thing to decipher sometimes). I now do not make close friends, because I do not know how to explain my illness to them, and because I still feel profoundly ‘different’ from most people, even though I’m doing well enough to, well, function. I still have this feeling that non-MI people are different from me and I cannot relate to them on certain levels. So I just don’t try. I spend a lot of time alone.

    • Meredith said:

      Now that my wife is retired, I spend less time alone. But I do spend lots of time alone because I work at home and am an artist and most of the activities I choose to do are individual rather than group activities. I also am an introvert so to some extent I need to be alone and don’t mind being alone. I get tired being around other people for too long anyway. So it kind of works out. However, I do go through periods where I know I’m alone too much and really need to mix it up socially. Then I put on my happy face, stuff reality into a pocket, and join the fray.

    • said:

      New thread on making friends coming soon! Excellent suggestion.

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