There's a phrase that pops into my head from time to time: You're only as sick as your secrets. This may not be true for certain illnesses (cancer is still cancer, of course, whether you keep it hidden or not), but for many who have mental health conditions, it holds merit.
Years ago, during a peak in my panic disorder, I was talking with my therapist about the burden of keeping my struggles tucked neatly beneath my tweed blazer and black patent pumps. I am an instructor of fashion merchandising at a university in Pennsylvania.
"You know," she said, "you're giving anxiety exactly what it wants by keeping it a secret. Burying it only gives it more power."
I stared at her blankly. And? What do you want me to do about it?
She'd seen this tactic before: avoidance.
"What's the harm in releasing the secret?" She treaded carefully, but I exploded nonetheless.
"You mean tell people?!"
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean."
I shook my head adamantly. "Not an option."
"But why? What will happen if you let people in?"
I paused, pretending to think. But I knew exactly what would happen. My I-have-it-all-together facade would come crumbling down, and people would think less of me.
She didn't give me a chance to answer.
"I'll tell you what," she said, removing her glasses and leaning forward to look me straight in the eye. "I'm giving you a homework assignment."
"Homework. You're a teacher, you know what that means. You're not gonna like it, but I'm assigning it."
Guess it's time to find another therapist, I thought.
She continued pushing me in a way I didn't want to admit I needed.
"Next week is the first day of class, right? Here's what I want you to do. When you stand before your students on the first day, you're going to lay it all out there. Introduce yourself as you normally do, but also share the bits about anxiety and panic. It doesn't have to be a dissertation. Just a statement of honesty. If you don't make it a big deal, they won't think it's a big deal."
I remember staring at her thinking, This lady is nuts. Leaving her office that day, I shook at the thought of carrying out my homework assignment. I didn't sleep for several nights.
A week later, I walked into class and smiled at my students whom I hadn't seen for three months over the summer.
"Hi, guys!" I greeted them cheerfully. "Welcome back!"
Was I going to do it? I'm a perfectionist and a people-pleaser, so of course I was. After my typical introduction, I took a deep breath.
"There's one more thing I want to mention before we get started," I began. "Many of you might not know this about me, but I've suffered from panic and anxiety disorders for most of my life. It's something that comes and goes, but lately I've been struggling. So I'm working with my therapist to get back on track. I just wanted to let you know this about me so that if I ever need a moment or am acting funny, you'll know why. Anxiety and panic are only a small part of me, and these conditions are much more common than people realize. I bet you know someone who has dealt with them, too. That's all! Now let's get back to the syllabus."
My students gave a nod and ruffled through their folders.
They didn't laugh at me. The sky didn't fall.
In that moment, a burden lifted from my shoulders. I felt physically lighter. Releasing the secret of my mental health struggles was like taking a knife and chopping away at my panic. It was still there, but its grip wasn't as tight.
At my next appointment two weeks later, I waltzed into my therapist's office high on pride. I completed your assignment and passed with flying colors, thankyouverymuch. But when I plopped into the cushy armchair, I was confused to see her face beaming.
"You did it," she said before I even had a chance to share my news. "You want to know how I know? A few days ago, I had a new client. She's a student at your school. And when I asked her what brought her to seek treatment, her response was this: 'My teacher told us about her anxiety struggles. She made it seem OK and normal. And I thought that if she was brave enough to share that with us, I could be brave enough to get help, too.'"
My mouth dropped. Tears pricked my eyes. Had my transparency actually helped someone else? Did my honesty help set a young person on a course to wellness?
"Yes," my therapist said. "Yes, it did."
- - -
The fall 2020 semester just started at my university. Nothing is normal about this school year. There are endless uncertainties, along with new safety requirements that have both faculty and students on edge. Stress levels are higher than I've ever seen them.
On the first day, I walked into class. I smiled, even though they couldn't see it behind my mask. I hope they could see it in my eyes.
With a cleansing breath and clammy palms, I began as I now do on every first day of class.
"Hi, guys," I said. "Welcome back! Something I'd like to mention before we get started . . ."