Coming out as mentally ill, or coming out gay? Which is harder?
I’ve often noticed the similarities between coming out gay, and as a person with a serious, “scary” mental illness, in my case bipolar disorder Type I – the most virulent type. Like all gay men, I have my “coming out” story down pat, and the simple version of it is rather generic. The self-knowledge that I was homosexual had been with me for most of my formative years. I don’t think I’d even turned ten when I made the abrupt connection between my attraction to boys and the concept of “gay”. I vividly recall that exact moment: a horrible sinking recognition that I’d be alone for life, in the darkness of the closet. (I’d grown up in a very macho society, near Newcastle, in the north-east of England, in the seventies.)
Of course, I was wrong about most of that, but it took coming out to make that obvious; not to mention moving to another continent. I went to U. of Penn to do a Ph.D., and it’s only in retrospect that I realized that moving so far was really the means of giving myself space to deal with my sexuality. In my second year, my grades fell apart as I yearned with the insane physical desire to be touched by another man. I ended up pulling out of school early, and graduating with a Masters. The sequelae are conventional: I told my best friends, and, oh, it was no big deal; I told my parents, and … dead silence for a year, followed by grudging acceptance so long as I never, ever talked about it. (Coda: turned out that my brother was a big poofter too, and, years later, one of my sisters turned into a lesbian. Coda upon coda: all three of us have life partners, and my Dad loves them all.)
The fear about coming out as gay is that people will be disgusted, or that you’ll be disowned and rejected. In most civilized places, this disgust has become lessened by increasingly common marks of acceptance: gay marriage lawsuits, famous people coming out, etc. And even in less civilized places – oh, like Los Angeles – at least you won’t be feared. (I joke about LA – I mean it is uncivilized, but being gay there is at least not much of an issue.) Coming out as mentally ill is something else entirely. As with being gay, you’re facing prejudice and incomprehension. But most people also have a visceral fear of mental illness: it’s a subject wrapped willfully in darkness and obscurity. People fear that you’re unpredictable, and you’re going to act “crazy” at any moment. Hell, I’d feel the same.
My coming out as a PoPD (“person of bipolar disorder”) was, as with most PoPDs (I coined that term, by the way), abrupt and non-volitional. My rapid ascent into mania ended up with a fist-fight at a downtown luxury hotel with three security guards, a quite horrible night in jail capped by my faked suicide attempt (and one impersonation of the Anti-Christ), then four involuntary nights in a locked ER psych ward. It wasn’t exactly easy to keep all of this quiet.
Nonetheless, I still had a more formal coming out to consider. I’d started up various business ventures when I was in the manic misconception that I could do anything I put my mind too, even in the absence of funding. And at the same time, I’d been maintaining a blog (still ongoing, at brokenwhole.com), documenting what I’d thought had been an amazing recovery from decades of depression. Even after I’d been diagnosed as a PoPD, I still felt that some of my business ideas made sense: but I was faced, suddenly, with a horrible choice: should I keep my mental illness in the closet, as far as business was concerned?
This was not an obviously clear decision. There’s so much shame associated with mental-illness, and my own two decades of pre-bipolar depression had been clouded with it. Light is the opposite of shame, and so, to counteract shame, I’d always been open in my various blogs about depression. But bipolar disorder is altogether more serious, and I’d doubt many people would consider going into business with a newly minted PoBD. So my choice was to “come out” in my blog about my new diagnosis, and kill my business ideas; or to keep it private, and carry on as normal albeit with a superadded burden of closet-shame.
In the end, the decision became obvious. In the space of ten minutes, I crashed from declining, medicated mania into acute depression so bad that I felt I was teetering on shaking ground on the edge of a chasm, all my dreams fleeing away. And I knew then that being quiet about my condition wasn’t an option. It was hard … very hard … to say goodbye to my ideas, but being open about my diagnosis was much more important to me, and, ultimately, the only way to get a measure of healing. In fact, I even went one huge step further and wrote a book about it.
I still deal with the consequences of being an uncloseted PoBD. For instance, nobody’s ever said it to my face, but there’ve been situations where I’ve started a potential new friendship which has come to a sudden end coincident with their reading my blog for the first time. Like I said: mental illness is scary: which is why I write about it; to remove the mystery; to show that people like myself form a colorful part of life’s tapestry, offering qualities and insights perhaps not available to others. But not everybody can hear that. Of course, it’s also possible that some of these potential friends were scared off by my bad writing. It’s difficult to hide that in the closet (though I’ve several dusty drawers full of it.) Oh, and if this is my last appearance on this website, feel free to draw conclusions. (I’m joking, Bryce! I hope!)