Smoke signals: healing in silence

With society barriers and senseless taboos thankfully — albeit slowly — being destroyed, one of our greatest victories as functioning individuals has undoubtedly been breaking the silence regarding mental health problems. Many have come forward in the past few years to publicly discuss their own personal battles, which not only helped to de-stigmatise the subject but also allowed people everywhere to feel they were not alone in their struggle.

However, and as it has been duly pointed out, normalising mental illness can have ambiguous consequences which, in the extreme, could ultimately lead to a point where we see it being shrugged upon by a system that insists on pill-pushing and one-size-fits-all therapy. It can also lead to morbid romanticisation, something that can be extremely dangerous — and particularly so in the all-knowing-all-telling internet age.

On the other hand, and with the stigma currently being lifted, a person dealing with mental problems is somewhat expected to be rather vocal about them, especially if they are usually quite open about their private life on social media or if their job features some form of writing. In a world of sharing and oversharing, with everybody praising people who step out and open up about their own mental health problems as “strong” and “brave”, one might feel pressured into opening up about their own experiences in a bizarre fear of missing out which requires one to validate their own condition publicly in order for it to be taken seriously.

For over fifteen years I’ve been actively struggling with numerous mental health issues whose seriousness fluctuates depending on internal and external circumstances — though they never really disappear. By being no means a shy person nor embarrassed about these issues in any way, I still opt to only talk about them if I find it important for my own process of healing or if my experience might in any way help someone in particular. This results in most of my friends not being aware of the toughest moments I go through as I don’t usually discuss them in person nor detail them on social media; whenever I’m going through a more difficult phase, I pretty much remove myself from the public eye as much as I can, only reaching out to a selected group of people and/or specialists — and even that only in a very extreme situation.

The private way in which I deal with my problems often makes for people not taking them seriously and not giving me the support I need when I eventually reach out for help: “I didn’t know you were depressed/anxious/suffering! You always sound so cheerful on Twitter!”, or “no way! You’re the strongest person I know!”, even dismissing the occasional hint with a “oh, I’m sure I’d notice if she was feeling poorly, there’s no need to ask directly.”

Not necessarily.

Sometimes, and maybe even more so for people who make a living out of their writing (and for whom putting such matters to paper and sharing them with the world supposedly “comes easy”), being private about certain aspects of their own life — especially those as delicate as mental health issues — is one of the few self-defence mechanisms they have at their disposal. Therefore, it’s a blunt mistake to judge how serious one’s friend’s situation is through the amount of information he/she openly discloses about it, be it in person or via social media, since it might not be a direct reflection of their state of mind but actually a complete opposite of their situation, as if pretending everything is fine could actually work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus not sending out a public cry for help could paradoxically be a cry for help in itself — especially in a progressively dangerous “boy who cried wolf” world that automatically reads every smoke signal as a false alarm. Then the house burns down before we even notice it.

This is obviously also valid for the exact opposite: if you feel that sharing your own feelings and experiences might help you with the mental burden you carry — and even help others out there — then by all means, do open up about it. But if you are doing it for any other reason ranging from peer (or society) pressure, fear of not be taken seriously if you keep private about your problems, or even an unfortunate attention-seeking attitude that doesn’t help to raise public awareness to these kind of problems since it only banalises them and turns them into a “mood” — then maybe you should think twice.

In this weird, autophagic age in which something that isn’t publicly overshared feels like it never happened in the first place, it becomes increasingly important that one learns to trust their own reality, instincts, and feelings instead of seeking others’ confirmation of what they know and feel. You are real. Your problems are real. Talk about them with your friends, your family, your therapist, or whoever you feel at ease with — or don’t, if you are not ready to do so just yet or prefer to deal with them in private.

It’s ok not to be “courageously outspoken” about this. You’re already brave enough for living through it and fighting it the best way you know and can, and not discussing your pain publicly doesn’t make it any less important.

originally published on The 405 on January 16th 2017

Paris-based trilingual music journalist. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.