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How do you explain your illness to others?


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I have a family reunion coming up and I know there will be questions regarding my illness.  See, I recently got a semicolon tattoo on my forearm and I know people will see it and ask about it.  I can't describe the tattoo without describing why I have it.  My new tattoo means a lot to me and my struggles with my "basket of crazy" as I call it.  It helps to keep me looking forward and remember that I can continue.  Even on days when I can't or don't want to.  So how do you tell people that you have a basket of mental illness and the tattoo is a reminder for people like me that they need to continue on.  I suppose just like that.  Seems simple but it isn’t.  See there is a greater question here.  How do I tell someone about having a mental illness?  Just typing the word seems bad, like even the keyboard is judging me.  I understand that I can hide the tattoo and that I can say that the meaning is private.  But is that the easy way out?  To begin to deal with the illness don't I have to first say I have it, face it.  Take it on head on.  How do you tell people that life gets dark?  People that just will not understand.  How do you tell them that you see the world differently than them?  That life affects differently.  When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar II, I felt broken.  More broken that I normally feel.  That is hard to convey.  This tattoo means all of these things to me.  It means that I may be broken but I can go on.  I can continue on like people on this site have continued on.  It means I am mentally ill and no matter how that sounds to them, my keyboard, or anyone else this is a part of who I am.  It means to me that I try to get a grip on my illnesses, that maybe there is hope.  Even if it is only a sliver.    Hell, the tattoo means me.  It's who I was, who I am, and maybe who I can be.

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I really gage who I tell and don't tell carefully. For some I would have a cover story for that tattoo, if you can't trust them. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental illness the stigma is very real and telling everyone and everybody without discretion can turn into a very bad thing. 

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^^ yes.

i know the tattoo, can you brush it off as "oh, it's about writing literature?". Seriously, personally, I wouldn't divulge to family, only my parents and sister knows, and even then, I don't discuss unless I'm in dire straits. Again, want to stress, not about shame or anything, I am simply a very, very private person. Not even our best friends, which are our neighbors, know much. 

Even without tattoo, good luck with family gathering.

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Honestly you have no obligation to talk about your mental illness with anyone. I personally don't talk about my mental health issues to family; it's none of their business and I don't need to explain myself to them. Only my parents really know what's up, and frankly that's just because I'm still on their insurance. Whether you adopt that policy or not, best of luck with the family gathering. I know those can be rough.

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Since my hospitalization, which caused a noticeable absence at work, I am much more inclined to be open. I wonder how many folks are suffering in isolation like I was.

i also told my friends. I don't have a lot of friends but the ones I do I want to be open with.

However - I also trust my instincts whether to disclose or not. If I get the wrong vibe, that overrules anything else.

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Bats, you can always just put a Band-Aid over it if you don't want to talk about it, assuming it's small.

I will tell anyone, at this point. I view it as my job to be an activist for our community. I am extremely fortunate to be able to do this, and I know it. If you aren't ready to tell people, then your timeframe is yours to determine. You don't owe anyone a free tour of your intimate thought and feelings.

I tailor my message to my audience, to a certain degree. I explain that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in my brain, and that I need medication to correct it. I am VERY matter-of-fact about putting it this way. As to the emotional content, what it means for me and my life, I treat that as I would any other talk with emotional content, and think "Would I tell this person if I were in love, or worried about my job, or really hated [whatever]?" If the answer is no, then I keep that part to myself.

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I just told my boss at work, first time in my 30-year work history that I have done that. I just said OK: I was in an abusive relationship that led to a cult which led to [crazy effing meltdown at work] and my PTSD made me not trust anyone"

he he was TOTALLY OK with it and very supportive.

Your mileage may vary. 

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I am not ashamed of it, but I am cautious who I tell. I only tell people I trust, and no longer my bosses.  I had two incidents in which it was held against me at work, neither of which I can prove to the point that I can win a lawsuit that a disability law was broken.  

If you're struggling with what to tell people, consider not telling them at all.  I get that there is something about being open and not ashamed, but it really isn't any of their business.  You can not tell if it's awkward to do so, and still be not ashamed.  

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I think you can talk about the meaning of a semicolon tattoo without delving into your personal struggles too much. It's about pausing to think about your situation, what matters, how to react, etc.  Most people can relate to that.

Edited by Rabbity9
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