I kept quiet about my mental illness, fearing how others would see me

This First Person article is the experience of Helen Morrison, a retired lawyer in Victoria. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

In squabbles with my siblings, we would casually toss out insults like “you’re crazy” or “you’re a psycho.” None of us actually knew anything about mental illness but we had the notion that people put in “loony bins” were misfits and outcasts.

Much to my horror, I actually ended up being one of those “crazy” people. I was committed to a psych ward twice in my thirties. I was initially misdiagnosed with postpartum psychosis after the birth of my daughter. I didn’t even know what a psychotic break was before I had one — basically it felt like I was dreaming while awake. But the magical thinking is all too real.

Five years later, the diagnosis was bipolar disorder and, for me, earth-shattering. It was one thing to have a one-off humiliating experience but quite another to have a lifelong chronic mental illness. My initial reaction was bewilderment and disbelief because my self-image would not allow me to comprehend how I could possibly have a mental illness. I was a well-educated and capable professional and the mother of an adorable little girl. I was not one of those “crazy” people!

I internalized my prejudice and ignorance, and my self-esteem plummeted. I literally hung my head in shame. And the guilt and shame were reinforced when I was warned not to talk about it by my psychiatrist. It would be career-limiting if it became widely known by colleagues in my workplace. And if my ex-husband found out, I could lose custody of our five-year-old daughter. Both were scary prospects.

For a long time, I only shared my diagnosis on a need-to-know basis and envied people who had physical illnesses and could be more readily open about their experiences. I saw how they received lots of sympathy, went to support groups, and were prayed for in church. I didn’t even talk about my mental illness with family as I had the sense I would be mostly seen as an embarrassment and a burden. And, in any event, I was uncomfortable talking about it even with people who were aware of my diagnosis, as I was anxious to fit in and be seen as “normal.”

I tried to keep most friends and colleagues in the dark for fear of being judged or misunderstood. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that I would be labelled and lose their respect if they only knew. I didn’t want to risk being looked down on or, at best, a weird curiosity.

Helen Morrison holds her daughter in Montreal in 1986. (Submitted by Helen Morrison)

My daughter, of course, saw my struggles up close and now has tremendous compassion for people living with a mental illness. I regret how my illness affected her growing up. I remember her saying at a young age, “Mum, I don’t like it when you’re sad.” But we both learned that the highs and lows were temporary and that stability would gradually return.

Even after I found ways to manage my illness in my personal life, the stigma surrounding mental illness negatively impacted my professional life. When I relocated to my home province from Ottawa, I wanted to be licensed to practise in B.C. Unfortunately, I had not started that process before my diagnosis and the application form required that I divulge it. I was fairly certain that, given how the question was worded, there was an assumption that having a mental illness made me medically unfit. 

Admission would be a long uphill battle for someone like me and I wasn’t up for the fight. Thankfully, in 2009, an articling student with depression challenged the Law Society and the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal found the question discriminated against applicants with mental disabilities.

As a result, the Law Society reformulated the question to focus on the likelihood of an existing condition impairing the ability to function as a lawyer or articled student. A laudable revision and it would have made all the difference because I have always had good psychiatric care and, I believe, sufficient insight and self-management to meet that standard. But, regrettably, that ship had sailed.

I first talked about having bipolar disorder at a Christian retreat in England in 2003. Since I knew I would never see these people again, I took the risk during a small group discussion. Their kind and thoughtful responses took me by surprise. Our group leader wrote down the comments and gave them to me.

Handwritten text on lined paper with words of encouragement.
Helen Morrison keeps this piece of paper with encouragement from her support group at hand. (Helen Morrison)

That piece of paper became one of my most treasured possessions and those reassuring words kept me going through some dark days. I later self-identified in a women’s spiritual journaling group and talked about my ongoing mental health struggles. Again, the group was nothing but accepting, kind, and supportive.

Those two experiences emboldened me to help launch a faith-based support group for people living with a mental illness at my church. We could come and share wherever we were at and be prayed for and reassured that we were loved and accepted just as we are. That led to an invitation to speak about my mental illness at a church service. It was pretty surreal to be telling my secret in front of a microphone to a large audience. I was extremely nervous to put it all out there. But once I got going, I actually enjoyed sharing my story. It had been on my heart for so long to educate others about what it’s like to have a psychotic break and live with a mental illness. 

Apart from the relatively safe space of my faith community, I am still not fully out of the closet. I know that more people are opening up about their anxiety, depression, and mental wellness in general. But I still don’t hear much understanding or compassion for those of us who swim in the deep end of the pool. I fear the risk of reputational harm and automatically being considered as unstable by neighbours and acquaintances. Or being labelled as “crazy” or a “psycho” behind my back.

Those derisive words, used out of prejudice and ignorance years ago, trigger my internalized shame and keep me quiet. But I want people to know that being diagnosed with a mental illness need not be earth-shattering. Faulty brain chemistry should be seen as just another chronic medical condition.

I’m finally ready to step out and walk in the light. This is how shame dies.

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