Let's get something straight: I have no idea what I'm doing.
Sure, I know how to string a few words together to form a sentence (sometimes) and I know how to take decent photos. I know how to utilize hashtags and how to maintain a mailing list. Those things are easy for me.
But those things aren't why I write. I write to continue and encourage open conversations about mental health issues, especially eating disorders, to talk about feminism in all things (and for ALL folks) and, most importantly, to encourage story sharing. I set out to do all those things by owning my story first and sharing the pieces of it that might be of service to others.
But there's no instruction manual for those things. The challenge surrounding these conversations is that they're multifaceted and there's still stigma attached to it. Not to mention there's often a pretty personal connection present. This conversation can be a bit of a learn-as-we-go process. Because of this, I am regularly terrified by my own words. I am terrified of how exposed and vulnerable this site can make me. I am terrified by the ways I am now held accountable by the truths that I share with you. I worry about my capacity to successfully grow and become better educated on these issues while simultaneously attempting to educate other folks. I worry that I will talk too much about X and not Y, presenting a warped or selective view on mental health. I just worry.
Despite the worry and the doubting (because F*** IT, AMIRITE!?), the only thing that scares me more is not talking about it. Since I've started challenging myself to be more transparent about my eating disorders and mental health, I've noticed a shift in the way I interact with folks – and the way folks interact with me. My life has become more honest and open. I've noticed that, for the most part, I'm a better, kinder person. I've also noticed that some folks are opening up to me, or to others around me, in ways that they did not before.
There's still so much progress to be made. Just in my own life, there's still so many misunderstandings to clear up and nuances to explore and folks who are underrepresented.
...but at least we're making progress.
At least we're talking.
One thing that talking more about mental health has shown me is that there's not a single "good" way to talk about it; we all go about it differently. Some people feel more comfortable discussing it publicly than others and some prefer to keep their business between them and a trusted source. Regardless, all I know is what I know. And what I know is about a few things that have helped me keep the conversation going in my own life. So here's my imperfect, incomplete and unproven guide for talking about your mental health issues:
Unapologetic: it's a word a talk about and think about often. We've been conditioned to apologize for everything. We literally apologize for existing — when was the last time you uttered a "sorry" for taking up space on a crowded bus rather than "excuse me?" Yeah.
This is just something I have to repeat to myself time and time again: you do not need to apologize for being. And this is part of your being. Your coping and your decision to reach out to others and bring them into that process is all a part of your being.
Have the conversation with yourself, as well:
I've found that sitting down with myself and exploring my mental health via meditation, writing and such has been helpful for a few reasons. First: for establishing boundaries. How much are you feeling the need to share? What language do you feel best using in regards to your mental illness and yourself? Second: to ensure you're aware of what you're sharing. Sometimes when you finally start talking about something, it can be easy to just uncork and unload — which can be an amazing form of catharsis. However it can be helpful to know what parts of your story you want to share with whom. And yes, you get that power. You get to chose where, when, to whom and how much of your story you want to share.
Tell them why it matters:
This is a point that I've recently found quite helpful, especially in my "romantic" life [enter oh-la-la or barf sounds here]. It's been a goal of mine to be more open about my eating disorder in my relationship in order to feel more comfortable taking care of myself when I need to. I am, admittedly, still not great at this. Sometimes I overshare and then feel uncomfortable because I crossed my own boundaries. Sometimes I under-share out of fear and find myself frustrated. But in both situations the thing I've found most helpful thing has been explaining why I feel the need to make them aware of what I'm dealing with. Sometimes I like to hold myself accountable for my recovery by telling someone what I need or am trying to do. Sometimes I just need to complain, because I'm human. Telling someone why can help them understand their role in the conversation.
Prepare for the response:
Here's where the vulnerability thing creeps in: people are going to respond when you talk to them about something ...and you can't always know or expect what that response will be, especially if it's the first time you're sharing. I used to get frustrated when I'd open up to someone about my eating disorder and be met with certain responses. Eventually, I learned that there were some topics that I had to reserve for specific members of my support system, or a therapist, because not everyone has the capacity to respond in a way that I found affirming or helpful.
Respect people's capacity:
This is important. This is something I'd like to be more mindful of in the future. While our paths are important and we shouldn't apologize for ourselves, it's important to recognize that we can harm others on our journey if we're not careful. Meaning? Keep perspective. Remember that other people are on a journey, too, and might not be the best place to impart certain details of your struggle. For example: a good friend of mine and I act very much as a support system for our eating disorders. Over time, we've opened up a channel for conversation and support where we both are *pretty good* (not perfect) at providing support for one another. That being said, we both struggle with eating disorders and there's always the risk of triggering or exacerbating the other's ED tendencies by disclosing details. We've become pretty good at asking that point blank or backing off of the topic when it becomes problematic. The trick is to be mindful, ask, and respect the response. If someone does not have the capacity to be as open as you might have hoped, try exploring other outlets: therapy, online forums, support groups, other friends, etc...
As important as it is to feel like out mental health matters and the conversation is welcome, it's equally important that we go about that without harming others. Let's all vow to work on this one together.
What tools do you use to open up to your loved ones about your mental illness? Are there any resources that have been particularly helpful to you? Where do you find opportunities to improve and grow the conversation? Comment below!