Those with mental illness shouldn't march alone
When I was 21 years old, I attended my first pride parade. It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a scorching hot day. My grandmother came with me, and I quickly realized that I had found my people.
Thankfully, it wasn't too hard for me to come out as queer. It could have been the love and support I felt from my family or my youth pastor. But, more than anything, it wasn't difficult to leave that dark closet because there was a glitter-filled path leading me out to a whole community of proud and supportive individuals on the other side of those walls. Over many decades, members of the LGBTQ community paved the way for me and others. And it truly is so much better on the other side.
Coming out as having a mental illness was much harder.
For one, there is no parade. There's no celebration where any amount of glitter would be flung into the air. Unlike with coming out of the rainbow closet, with mental illness there's no distinct community led by people like me who were ready to celebrate our shared experience.
Allies are critical — after all, the LGBTQ community would not have achieved marriage equality at the polls without our straight friends and family! But, as pride parades joyously remind us, there is something very special, very wonderfully validating to be around other people that are like you.
When you come out as experiencing a mental illness, all too often, you stand alone. Even though an estimated 18 percent of American adults experience some form of mental illness, people don't come out as being among them very often.
I decided to come out a few years ago. It was after a professional experience where I came face-to-face with ugly misconceptions about people with mental illness. I figured that one powerful way to educate people in my field and others about people with mental illness is to share that I am one. I talk with colleagues and friends about what my worst day looks like. I can see how it alters the distorted pictures that are lodged in their minds from reading misleading headlines where a person's diagnosis is the focus.
It wasn't easy. After I came out, I was consumed by worry — worry that people would be afraid of me, worry that they'd make assumptions about me, or simply dismiss me or my opinions as "crazy." But, normalizing the experience helps you realize that it's not just you. You're not alone.
Only now am I starting to feel proud of my disability. Proud that it makes me uniquely able to walk through the halls of a psychiatric facility and listen to patients' stories. Proud that I can relate to a client struggling with a medication change and pass on a few tips that I've learned. Proud that it's one undeniable facet of my humanity.
Just as with other disabilities, seeing my mental illness through the lens of "ability" creates opportunities for empowerment.
My diagnosis is anxiety. It's ever-present and I tried to mask or treat it my entire life. But it also enables me to be a great multi-tasker and a good litigator, and to never experience the grips of stage-fright.
Building a stronger community has to start somewhere. The first step is encouraging people to identify as being part of the mental health community and share their stories. I — and so many others — are waiting to say, "I get it" and "we do recover."
I wonder if I would have gotten here so quickly if I didn't learn how to be fiercely proud as queer.