As children we are taught to be honest, ‘Don’t tell lies’ or ‘can you please tell the truth’ are phrases we would all hear time and time again. I’ve therefore been inexplicably lead to believe- that being honest is something that you have to do, and that not saying something will result in consequences later. But how does disability and mental health fall into this realm of honesty? As I grew up I learned that disclosing is something I should do, in the same way that I shouldn’t lie about eating all of the sweets. As a teenager I was as far away from this acceptance as you can possibly be, I knew I was different- I read books, wrote poetry and played folk music- while others my age were taking drugs, going to parties and having one night stands. The embarrassment of having a completely different teenage life to my peers made disclosure impossible, and hiding away from reality easier to achieve. I remember going away on a hostel weekend with The Woodcraft Folk, I was about 14 at the time and the girls in my dorm were discussing weed, boyfriends and blow jobs – I buried my head in a book as to show that I wasn’t interested in the conversation, but really I was embarrassed – about the lack of experience I had in life and the little acceptance I had of myself. I find being honest pretty natural now and it’s given me more friends than I have lost, but back then I found uttering the words ‘I am Dyspraxic’ to myself, on my own in a room harder than anything.
Disclosure as common place as it is for me now, despite the sleepless nights regularly wondering ‘have I done the right thing? There have been times when I either wished that I didn’t have Dyspraxia, anxiety or depression OR that I just simply didn’t disclose. Those of you who have followed this blog, or my general life for a while will know that I went to India for three months in 2010 and had one of the best times of my life. Ringing a friend up in tears, when I was worried about getting on the plane all worked out okay in the end. An experience that came later – as it’s a few years ago now, it doesn’t feel so raw. I applied again to go to abroad, this time to South Africa to do some similar volunteering with an organisation called Restless development, as part of the International Citizen Service. I had visions of this being as good as India- it’s cliche I know, but I felt I’d ‘found myself in India’ – for the first time in my life, I talked about my Dyspraxia in depth throughout the interview process, a disclosure that ultimately got me a seat on that plane. Without thinking I disclosed here too.
‘Do you have a disability or medical condition?’
And so Dyspraxia & anxiety appeared on my form. I went away not thinking anything of it, knowing that I had done the right thing and that my honesty would help me here too.
I would never have imagined what was to follow. My ‘mental health’ was picked up as being a problem, I was put through the most gruelling assessment process and judgements were thrown at me left, right and centre. More than anything, this experience taught me that the stigma of mental health is still well and truly there.
‘We are totally unprepared to support Alice’ were some of the comments in the emails I later read about myself.
And ‘What if something inappropriate would happen, like if she needs to go back on anti-depressants whilst in South Africa for example’
The list goes on, and so I filed in a formal complaint – for my sanity more than anything, and to channel my anger about an organisation that see’s the word Anxiety, panics and then discriminates, into something positive. I didn’t go to South Africa in the end, but I didn’t want others to go through what I’d experienced. Hence all of the writing. All of the tweeting and the many frank and open discussions I’ve had lately.
It’s experiences like this, that makes many of us wonder if disclosure, honesty and being as open as I have is the right thing to do. I’ve certainly thought twice about disclosing my mental health or Dyspraxia since, and can understand why people don’t – although I am pretty comfortable writting and blogging about these these kind of things now, this confidence in discussing issues that others would rather avoid on social media, came well after Restless Development and still, sometimes I wonder if I really should.
This week I went to a folk gig with a friend, and as I sat there listening to the music, in the world where I first found a sense of belonging and acceptance, I thought to myself: ‘I fit in so much more now that I’ve started to use disclosure as a positive thing’. And this to me, is why honesty is important.
In other slightly related news, I’ve found that the best thing for mental health (and the latest devastating news in politics) other than understanding and supportive friends, are cats – meet Biscuit and Amber:
Cats are awesome – Paige really helped me when I was struggling with the midwifery course (they were also unequipped to support me; my tutor said something along the lines of, “The NHS is not a caring place for staff, it’s not a good place for someone like you to work”).
I’ve come to see my mental health “problems” as simply being part of who I am. The fact that I’m much happier staying at home most of the time, in my safe environment, is a bonus now because I can take on the majority of the life admin and housework, and that frees Naomi up to go out to work and do what she loves. My experiences make me good with children, because I don’t assume they will automatically understand the world and how they should behave, and a good tutor, because I know what it’s like to think differently from other people and I can look at things from multiple angles until we find the one that suits the student.
I think your “issues” are your strengths, too. It’s what made you a good youth worker, and it’s what will make you a good journalist. You see the world differently from most people and that means you can highlight issues that get overlooked and work to change them.
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Thanks May. I think a lot of the time it’s trial and error to see what works for you, South Africa definitely wasn’t meant to be, and in a similar way some employers just weren’t people I should work for, well at least if I want to stay as well as I can be. Seeing things differently can give us so many strengths, if only more people can see that staying in and having more duvet days than most people, is absolutely okay. I’ve gone into Journalism because of exactly that – I want to say things that others feel that they don’t have the power to.
Disclosure for official purposes is something I still ponder whenever I come across the question on a form. I still haven’t settled into a consistent policy, as a lot of the time I find myself thinking “They don’t mean things like dyspraxia, if I put that down they’ll think I’m making a fuss or they’ll make a fuss over me” even though I’ve never actually had any experiences to suggest this would be the case.
Cats are indeed the answer to most of life’s problems though.
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My general policy is to always disclose – and then if people don’t want me because of what I’ve told them, I don’t really want to work for them etc – I certainly wouldn’t advise this for everyone though and lots of jobs are different. Disclosure comes up naturally in most conversations for me because of my writing, journalism and the awareness work I do – so I often don’t get a choice.
I do agree though, when people either don’t get it, or smother you – I’ve had both and the only real resolution to this is for people to continue to talk about it.
Yes, cats should totally be prescribed on the NHS.