Disclosing Through Writing About Mental Health
by Mike Hedrick
I was diagnosed with schizophrenia eleven years ago, but I’ve been writing since I was a child. The first time I can remember writing something was in the third grade— a funny story for my classmates. Ever since then, getting my thoughts and feelings out through writing has stuck with me. There have been periods where I didn’t write anything at all, and those have been few and far between, but they mark some important milestones in my life. One such instance where I didn’t write anything was the first couple years after my illness. I was lost. Being diagnosed with the extremely scary label of schizophrenia, I had to relearn how to operate in the world, and that was an immense amount of work. Somewhere along the way, my family suggested I write about my experience. I did, but I did so idly; never putting anything substantial together for a long time. I was extremely wary about sharing my diagnosis with people unless we were very close friends or family and that kept me from sharing much of anything that I wrote.
I was happily floating along for a long time, never sharing much of myself with anyone and, though there were instances of schizophrenia being demonized in the news, it didn’t hit home until the Newtown Massacre. That’s the first time I ever disclosed publicly, and I did it as a pretty reactionary response.
I was sitting in a Red Robin in California reading through the news and a Huffington Post article called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” by Liza Long came across my newsfeed. I read it and was viscerally disgusted about Long’s conception of mental illness; that mental illness is akin to violent personality traits, that she saw her son as a monster that needed serious intervention. This infuriated me even more because she was talking about her own son. She used every cliché in the book; mentally ill people were dangerously unstable, they couldn’t be trusted, given the chance they would most definitely shoot up a building. I felt compelled to set this woman straight.
I went back to my hotel room that night and wrote about schizophrenia as frankly and as honestly as I could. I sat on it for a day or two and then shared it on my tumblr blog. Then I sent a message to a small news and opinion magazine I followed called “Death and Taxes” I got an email almost immediately saying they’d love to put it on their site. I can’t describe how nervous I was to have laid it all out, stripped my soul bare for this essay and then to see it getting published on a website.
The next day or two, I obsessively checked the article for comments and shares and though the feeling was scary it was also addicting and I knew I had to have more. I don’t know when I wrote my next essay, but it was pretty soon afterward, I sent it again to Death and Taxes and then, because I was feeling bold, I sent an email to other magazines, I can’t remember exactly which ones, but it was thrilling. Pretty soon there afterward I got an email from Salon.com about doing an essay for them. From that point on, I was hooked and, over the next few years, I’d pitch whomever I could about writing an essay or a series of essays on living with mental illness. Writing for OC87 Recovery Diaries has been valuable for me. I think it’s been an incredibly valuable experience, taking me to places in my writing and in my thoughts that I never would have gone otherwise. I’m grateful for the experience.
Looking back, I have to say that I do feel a certain amount of shame for selling my story for a slice of fame, but it was addicting to feel validated when nothing else in my life was going according to plan. It was as if I finally had something I could hold onto, and something I use to get out of this overwhelming hole of hopelessness I felt about my illness. I think I needed that.
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I needed to feel like my story mattered to people, and writing publicly about my illness provided both the validation I had been seeking, and money that I needed, and it looked like there couldn’t be anything better. As I wrote about more and more complicated aspects of my illness and I read more and more comments, some vitriolic, like someone telling me to kill myself, some just nonsensical like a rant about how meds don’t work and I should try herbs and vitamins, the fact that I was disclosing started to lose its power. My skin was growing thicker and I was becoming more immune to criticism. It felt good, and I’d share parts of my story that I don’t even like to talk about now with the whole world. That’s changed now. As I grow older, I find myself wanting more privacy and I sometimes regret sharing so much. Nowadays I don’t write as a reaction, I write to be proactive. I write to support myself and make a living for myself as a person with mental illness. I don’t do it out of anger or a need to be recognized anymore.
When I first got published my parents were thrilled for me. They told me how proud they were of me for having the guts to share my story. They repeatedly reiterated how good of a writer I was and, while I sometimes doubt that notion, I was more than happy to have their support.
Somehow, I felt removed from the writing once it was out, it was as if I was purging myself and getting validation and money for it. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with everything that I shared now that I’m a few years out, but I think it was a valuable experience for me to both get all the demons out and to feel like I was being accepted in the world. Strangely, I don’t tell many people I meet in my everyday life about my illness but I’m so open on the internet that it’s scary.
There are drawbacks. People can Google me and find out my life story; and that kind of sets off my paranoid voices, but I think that what I do is valuable. These days, my aim is simply to support myself and, hopefully, help a few people. I don’t seek the validation like I used to, in fact I kind of cringe when I see my writing published, but I do it because I’ve seen the numerous comments of people saying my writing has shed light onto something they have had a lot of trouble understanding.
I hope I help people and, if I do, that makes me happy.