What is a secret and what is sacred?
Growing up, like so many children, I had to hold at a young age family secrets that were potentially hugely shameful. How many of us have those generational traumas we were born into? Eric Berne said; we are born into an ongoing family drama. So true. I grew good at “keeping secrets”. So much so as an adult I appear a closed book to most, if not all. I manage my own issues and troubles and never ask for help. I am the Strong one. And yet I have no secrets, I am an open book and will answer direct questions openly and honestly. But I will not offer them out. I have my own shame from a lifetime of trying too hard, making enormous mistakes, taking responsibility for others’ troubles, and taking “punishment” because my mind, vulnerable in mental ill health, told me I deserved it. These shames and stigmas are not secrets, they are sacred to me, they are gemstones I polish and cherish and keep close, I value them for the teachings I have got from them. Can they be used against me, of course, if unkind people chose to do so, however that says more about them than me. Do they get heavy at times, yes they do, and I need to set them down for a while and take a rest from their burden.
For a while I was very open about my battle with mental ill health, prostituting my story for money. Like many mental health speakers on the circuit I enjoyed the rush, the acknowledgement of my heroism, a platform to share my passion, derived from great pain and anger at a faceless (but not always) ignorant and malevolent oppressor of the mentally ill. I bought into the narrative that this was helping the cause, that it was raising awareness, however I had a constant niggle in my chest and my gut that I was causing myself further trauma, causing secondary trauma in others, as well as being a potential object of ridicule, shame and schadenfreude.
I wrote a Speaker’s Charter for the Association of Mental Health Advocates, ran a specific session for a mental health charity, I cautioned and advised clients about the safe use of lived experience speakers. I was a member of a speakers’ group and on the books of speaker placement organisations. I have been paid to be on stage and tell my story and what I learned from it. I have unintentionally and unwittingly made audience members cry and consoled many who came up to me afterwards. I have counselled sponsors and HR team in protecting audience members afterwards, and I have gone home alone in tears and with flashbacks because of what I’ve shared, however neutral and ambiguous I’ve intended to make my story.
What I have learned is that my life and my battles are sacred to me, they are not a secret, but they are not public domain either despite what the media and charities would have us believe. I still tell aspects of my story in my work but it is carefully considered and appropriate to the purpose and learning outcomes of the session. I won’t do a speaking gig for the sake of “raising awareness”. I don’t think it works.
Public speaking about mental ill health has become big business and as all businesses it will do anything it can to survive and self-justify. It isn’t wrong or bad, it just needs to be much better informed and managed than it currently is.
Few care when you are mentally “bleeding out” or in a “dark place”; they only care when you are recovered and then they want to hear how you survived. This is not what we want. We want people to help when we are in that dark place, to step forward and take the risk. To keep coming back with compassion and empathy even when they are rejected, angered at, and given the denial ‘stump’ speech. They knew you were in a bad place, and still they chose to walk away.
An audience needs help to raise their own awareness of their own preconceptions, their own frame of reference. They need to be disturbed, not by your story but by their own. They need to be held in their discomfort and carefully supported, over time, to change their unconscious conditioned responses to conscious choices. This isn’t a speaking engagement task, this is a carefully crafted programme, it takes psychological safety and a skill in group facilitation.
The audience members with no lived experience need to be on stage to share their views of those with lived experiences, to share their stigmatic observations and discriminatory behaviours and to say how they have changed, will change, if they want to change. The work needed isn’t for those with, within, but for those without, outwith, the mental ill heath arena.
My story is mine, and yours is yours. Very few people will earn the right to hear it, no-one will hear it all. Our truths change, our memories fail us. Others will judge based on their stories, that is not your story or your issue, it is theirs. Those that don’t judge will know a pain, different but enough to trust you in your silence. Stay safe first and foremost, honour yourself and what you have been through. Don’t sell out for handfuls of silver. The personal cost in the long run for everyone could be too high.