How much information is too much information?
I never intended to let it all hang out online; my background is journalism and personal essays don’t come naturally to me. The closest I got professionally was a Portuguese newspaper column written in the first person about psychological abuse. Even then, I kept it tame — the whole story actually involved sexual abuse too, but I couldn’t bring myself to disclose it at the time.
Some people read between the lines and contacted me, saying “Me too”, years before #MeToo was even a thing. Making fellow humans feel less alone justified the searing discomfort involved in writing such a piece. After all, journalism is service. Not only did I bring a common issue to light, but I made it clear women wouldn’t be silenced by a man either, regardless of how powerful he was.
Despite tackling universal issues through a personal lens, personal essays are never entirely selfless. Instead, they’re often a show of defiance and strength on the part of humans who have suffered in silence for too long and have had enough.
In a society that looks down on you, confessional writing can help you to reclaim a modicum of dignity and control over a personal narrative often gone awry.
When a secret predicament is out in the open, it ceases to control you.
Naming, articulating, and documenting what ails you can bring you relief when you realize you’re not alone. And those with whom your words resonate are likely to join in the conversation once they see how speaking up is helping you.
Confessional writing throws off the shackles of shame and stigma, freeing not just the writer but those in a similar predicament.
I write about hardship and mental illness to reclaim the humanity capitalist society is intent on denying me. But it took losing five years of my life to major depressive disorder to understand why confessional writing mattered.
Diving head first into this kind of work isn’t for everyone so please proceed with caution.
Since journalism isn’t a people-pleasing business, we’re used to dealing with vitriolic responses to our work. It comes with the job, much like being a trash collector means bad smells every single day. After a while, you don’t even notice them anymore.
When you decide to tackle thorny topics in public, be aware that self-appointed know-it-alls will pounce and chastise you. My very first piece on this side of the Atlantic was tantamount to coming out as mentally ill. I knew this would forever be attached to my byline and that some people would likely see it as a black mark against my character.
I forged ahead regardless.
And it took not time for some random guy to declare I had lost my grip on reality and urge me to get back on my meds. I shrugged it off. When you write copy that touches a nerve, some will respond by lashing out. Perhaps your words are too close for comfort, perhaps that reader is having a bad day, and you will never know unless they tell you.
The only way to deal with trolls is to remember their comments are never about you but always about them.
In a mental health context, if reader reactions are so vicious they throw you off balance and hinder your getting well then you may need to take a step back for your own sake and to protect yourself. Only you know what you can take, but putting yourself in harm’s way isn’t necessary.
You need to take care of you before you take care of anyone else.
It may sound odd but being able to go public about issues as debilitating as mental illness is a privilege.
Because I’m currently a freelancer, I needn’t fear losing my job. After a five-year hiatus, I do not have a reputation to lose either. And I do not write about anything I wouldn’t be comfortable giving a public talk about.
Not everyone can do this, and I write for those who can’t. Sharing the nitty-gritty of your daily reality to try and enrich our collective definition of the human experience is a lot harder than it seems.
Especially in the US, because American culture is so steeped in exceptionalism that we’re supposed to be infallible. Although this mythology is ridiculous, it doesn’t stop people from trying to live up to it. This is why personal growth, self-help, and life-hacking are booming fields, all subsets of positive psychology.
To me, this collective delusion is both unhelpful and dangerous. It puts inordinate pressure on us to perform and disregard the clues provided by our mind and body to help us survive.
For example, when you dismiss depression — be it your own or someone else’s — you contribute to maintaining the stigma. Worse still, you put yourself at risk of a total breakdown. Put in physical terms, when you exercise through pain, you’re likely to injure yourself. Your brain works the same way.
While harnessing vulnerability isn’t innate in a country that despises it, I do believe it is necessary to our enlightenment as a species.
Being curious about others is how we develop empathy and cultivate compassion. The idea behind public confessions is to put all humans on an equal footing rather than to other anyone.
Living in a bubble where the only human experience we know of is our own is what breeds bigotry and all its nefarious variations. Alas, there’s no better illustration of the dangers of solipsism than 2019 America.
Without public confessions and personal essays, how else would we ever put ourselves in other people’s shoes? How else would we figure out how to be a human in the world?
Public confessions help normalize widespread issues that are often too hard to discuss.
The more we write about the unspeakable, the less painful for all those who suffer in silence.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.