At what stage in a social interaction do you casually drop into the conversation that you’re mad*?
This is something I have been asking myself a lot lately – I’ve recently started evening classes and some new volunteering, both of which require interaction with new-to-me humans, and so I have been forced to confront the issue.
I’m pretty open about my mental health problems; on any application form where there is space to do so, I disclose them (though usually not my diagnosis – an issue for another post). But normal conversation does not have spaces marked out specifically for letting people know these things. I end up caught between hiding a huge part of myself, and shoehorning mental health into conversation in a way that is awkward for everybody.
Conversations usually work like this: person A says a thing, this reminds person B of another related thing which they have experienced or heard about, person B says this thing, this reminds person A or person C of a third related thing, and so on. But my frame of reference for small talk has shifted while I’ve been down the rabbit hole of the mental health system, so the things that I am reminded of by other people’s comments mark me out as different.
Say we are making small talk about where we live. I live in special mental people housing. It is awkward to drop this into the conversation, but it also feels uncomfortable to pretend I don’t. Also, last time I had a conversation with someone about where they were from, they turned out to live near the hospital where I was admitted in April. “Oh yes, I know your area, it’s where I went for a run when I was let out of the mental hospital on leave,” is kind of a conversation killer, but it was a pretty significant experience in my life, so it was difficult to come up with relevant comments that weren’t about that.
Or say we are in the middle of a class, and we hear a siren in the distance, and I ‘wake up’ five minutes later to realise I’ve been having a flashback. Or say we are talking about work; I often feel that it is somehow fraudulent if I let people assume I work full-time, rather than part-time work and part-time madness, and then overcompensate by saying unnecessarily early in the conversation that I work part-time because I have health issues, and then worry about looking attention seeking, and then wish the ground would quietly open up underneath me and I could curl up in a ball and let it close again over my head.
It means I end up constantly watching myself, afraid something is going to slip out that I will regret revealing. I’m trying to tell myself that there is a compromise to be found: my mental health doesn’t have to be a state secret, but it doesn’t have to be the first thing I tell people either. I also ressure myself with the thought that people I meet in these situations are unlikely to actually spend very much time thinking about me – the other people in my bookbinding class have better things to do with their mental energy for the rest of the week than judge me. But the constant anxiety makes any activity outside of mental health settings very tiring – it’s difficult not to just give up and stay in bed with the cats, or to skip back down the rabbit hole, because at least all the conversations there take place within the same framework.
*For ‘mad’, read ‘unwell’, ‘suffer from chronic mental health issues’, or ‘have a normal emotional reaction to living in a mad, mad world,’ depending on your preferred model of interpreting psychological distress.