The first time I told my story, and what it taught me

The people around me at the newspaper all knew I had an anxiety disorder. I tried to be relatively open in talking about it, and the people with whom I worked knew most of my story (hear the whole story on Episode 001 of The Everyday Fray Podcast). But that was a pretty small circle – and I just happened to have access to a pretty big audience.

Around that time, I had come to terms with my anxiety disorder – I (mistakenly) though it was only a chemical issue and simply an unpleasant fact that needed management. My first marriage had ended, and I was beginning to accept who I was, as opposed to who I thought (or was told) I should be.

What ultimately triggered my desire to use my position as the head of the editorial department and write about my experience living with mental illness was a combination of a few elements, like Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign being in its second year and gaining momentum, and my personal comfort with my story growing as I shared it with more individuals.

But it was the concept of media outlets and personalities constantly saying we need to talk about mental health – and then not actually talking about mental health that was the final push I needed. I found it immensely frustrating that, while the general idea of mental health was being talked about, very few people in the media or with a significant audience were actually talking about the real impacts it had on their lives (I think the main exception at that point was Michael Landsberg, who has since founded the #SickNotWeak non-profit and movement aimed at ending the stigma surrounding mental illness).

I let my parents, sister, and ex know I’d be writing about it – they wouldn’t be mentioned by name, but by association and vague pronouns, they’d be included in the story. The actual writing and editing process took two and a half weeks. My first draft was reviewed and edited by our sports and entertainment editor (my oldest and dearest friend Scott), and then I worked with our copy editor to trim it down and lean it out before Scott had another look at it. For the majority of my editorials at the time our copy-editor gave it a once over, our illustrator got a look to make a comical reference in art (Cartoon Bob, who didn’t provide artwork for this one), and it went to print – this one was special, though.

The initial response was overwhelmingly positive: our local MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament, or a state-level representative for our American friends) wrote publicly about the “bravery” of the editorial, local health and mental health programs requested copies, I received a lot of private messages about peoples’ individual struggles (who very quickly requested they not be shared publicly), and it was reprinted in the Hamilton Spectator, a large daily newspaper.

After about a week, the online comments and emails came in: you need to suck it up; stop blaming other things for your mistakes and problems; if you’d killed yourself I wouldn’t have read this.

The comments were a little harsh when they were anonymous.

After a few weeks, the hubbub died down. I’d get an occasional request for authorization to reprint or share online, which we’d always grant. But it was an interesting exercise in how people perceived mental health – and the level to which people supported the idea of talking about it, but still wouldn’t share their personal stories publicly.

Read the original editorial – Mental Health Week: My Story

Looking back on this first effort at writing about my mental illness in a public forum, I find it overly simplified. That is, the nuance and subtlety of many elements of my journey to that point were left out both for space, and because I’m not certain I could have explained them the way I can presently.

But the very last line of that editorial remains true, and something I firmly believe, and hope through this podcast and blog others will agree with:  the single most powerful thing any one of us can do is tell the truth.

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