For me, coming out as gay was about taking back control.
It didn’t work perfectly but it was still exhilarating. After twenty years of confusion and experimentation on the Internet, I took each of my friends and family aside and systematically told them I was gay. I didn’t receive one negative response.
I worked hard at university and developed a close circle of gay and straight friends. Eventually, everyone went their separate ways in work and in life but we stayed in touch. I started my first job and, at twenty-five, suffered a psychotic breakdown. I lost my job and ended up in a mental hospital for six weeks with an eventual diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder.
The clarity of what to do stopped there. The euphoria of having completed university, being out and heading to change the world came to an abrupt halt. From having little to no contact with the medical profession, my life became dominated by a strict schedule of psychiatric appointments and a new regime of medication.
The episode was about the time that the gay marriage debate was starting to gather momentum. It’s been ten years now and we now have a postal survey on marriage equality. I am looking back at the last ten years and thinking and reflecting: I’ve achieved a lot but I’ve also had disappointments.
One thing that disappeared with my mental illness was my sense of safety and security in my communities. I disclosed being gay to friends and family and it was largely a positive reaction. I can’t count on the same reaction from others if I disclose that I have a chronic mental illness – so I don’t.
Modern medicine and counselling ensures that people living with serious mental health conditions can hold down jobs, have families and sustain fulfilling and rewarding lives. But the suicide risk for people with bipolar is 17 times higher than the general population. For other mental health conditions, it can be higher. What exactly is going on here?
All my doctors counsel me against being open about having a serious mental illness. Finding ways to massage the truth to people – and explain away periods of absence from the workforce – has become second nature to me. But, as a gay man who has been open and proud about his sexuality, I can’t help but feel a bit conflicted. Is the counselling to stay secret actually denying people their proper supports in society and jeopardising mental health?
For gay rights, disclosing who you are to others is key. It can be both terrifying and exhilarating. Disclosing rarely stops in the first instance and can continue through life. I believe that achieving equal marriage will help bring about a society which is generally more welcoming and accepting of sexuality, although disclosures will probably continue.
The language of gay liberation can be of assistance to the medical profession. People with medical conditions generally find that it makes things easier when they disclose the fact that they are having a hard time. But it is easier to disclose some medical problems than others – in the workplace, for example, and there is certainly a stigma attached to some medical problems, largely because of a lack of public awareness and funding.
The medical profession can learn about how to approach certain medical conditions from the experiences of the stigmatised. In the 1980s, the LGBTQI community mobilised successfully in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and, in the main, embarked upon a public campaign to combat stigma and prejudice while respecting the needs of those involved for confidentiality.
In response to the ‘no’ campaign, the LGBTQI community is taking pro-active steps to protect the mental health of Australians young and old, particularly in response to damaging hate speech. Even despite the hateful words propagated by those in the same-sex marriage debate, I feel very loved by my community, friends and family for who I am.
The gay community is helping to normalise talk about feelings of anxiety or depression in relation to the ‘no’ campaign. However, there are a myriad of intervening factors which prevent open and honest disclosure of mental illness in society – a big one of these, despite the statistics, is whether there is medication involved.
The concept of Mad Pride – a mass movement of users of mental health services that started in Canada in the 1990s – is one way to deal with prejudices towards people living with a serious mental health condition. But the comparison between the reduction of stigma for people living with serious mental illness and the end of discrimination for the gay community sadly runs into difficulties here: there is limited opportunity for people living with a serious mental illness to meet each other and trade information. The closest that mentally ill people get to a community, unlike other sufferers of medical conditions, is the psychiatrist’s waiting rooms and the unforgiving halls of the clinic. Unlike for the gay community, there are no bars or clubs or established social media applications.
Some might ask why share experiences that are ultimately upsetting and full of upheaval. Many people living with serious mental illness lead rewarding and busy lives that minimise the impact of past health problems. People living with serious mental illness are doctors, lawyers, academics and educators. A lucky number have found a way to live so that having a serious mental illness is relegated to the background.
But it was not long ago that celebrating and having pride in one’s sexuality was an alien concept, and I believe that having a serious mental health condition is something worth celebrating for two key reasons.
First, the more information and services about mental health that we have to share, the better. The value of having other people in similar predicaments to talk to and provide objective counsel and advice outweighs the potential stigma of disclosure. Living with a serious mental illness can be a completely disempowering experience, especially for those who are from a disadvantaged background. Doctors sometimes get it wrong and institutions trample human rights. At my last job working in a large government department, I was forced to disclose my status at a meeting with departmental heads.
Second, there is always something worth celebrating in adversity and difference. For me, reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, a book that celebrates the wonderful compromises and commitments of families and friends to love and support people labelled as different in society, was a great solace. It shows how learning to live with limitations is part of the diversity and simple heroism of life, and how family and friends bravely have stepped into the spaces left by social intolerance and inflexibility.
‘Surely the sour blight of prejudice is best treated by being subjected to strong sunlight,’ Pulitzer-winning journalist Geneva Overholser says. ‘Take homosexuality: Until recently, very few gay men or lesbians sought public identification. Now, many assert their identities with pride. Newspaper treatment of gay issues has evolved apace. And society’s understanding of homosexuality has grown and matured.’
I wonder about the personal toll of all these secrets and lies. Sadly, I think it makes it easier to lie in all aspects of my life. Like being gay, it places an enormous burden on the secret-holder, who is cast as deceptive.
But I am not writing this for me. I am writing this for the future boyfriend who wonders why I couldn’t be open and honest from the start. I’m remaining anonymous writing this piece because I believe, rightly or wrongly, that society’s norms and values would not accept my flaws and that I, on balance, would not be able to still achieve my dreams in work, love and life by being open and honest about my past.
Image: Susanne Nilsson