Wounded healer or undercover crazy? Coming out (quietly)

Diana-Ross-Im-Coming-Out-226813

Back in 2013 I wrote a piece on this blog about navigating professional and personal identities online, particularly in relation to being a healthcare professional. Reading it now, so much of it still feels as relevant to me as it did then. Since I qualified last year I decided that I’d “open” up my twitter and writing and link it with my “real” name. My main rationale for doing this was that I’d taken a job outside of the NHS in a new geographical area. Without the structure of university and attending NHS professionals meetings I felt quite cut off from the rest of the psychology and healthcare world. I wondered if in continuing to stay “pseudo-anonymous” limited opportunities to connect with other professionals and also possibilities for doing more writing and public engagement.

My main hesitation about being “out” and open is that I’ve written in detail about my own life experiences, which include experiences of using mental health services. I have concerns about how my own disclosures might be judged by future employers, colleagues and therapy clients, and the impact of this. It’s hard to work out whether this is a realistic concern or my own internalised stigma. I don’t feel that my experiences limit my ability to do my job well (though I worry that others may think this). I feel well enough to do my job and I have a clear plan for what I would do if this were to change.

Going back through my blog I’ve taken out only a few pieces. These were the stories that contained information about other people in my life that would be made more identifiable. Whilst I’ve chosen to be more open, I respect others’ privacy and it isn’t for me to share their story for them without their consent.

When I first started my blog I was particularly looking for a space to marry up my experiences as a service-user and as a professional. It’s been a useful reflective space and I’ve really valued the conversations with others through this, particularly other professionals who write about their lived experience (PsychConfessions , CBTwithAlieshia, Giant Fossilized Armadillo and pd2oT) and mental health activists who write in candid detail to raise awareness (e.g. BipolarBlogger and Ilona Burton). Just before I qualified I took part in a research study about psychologists drawing on their lived experiences of distress (I hope this will be published and I’ll get a good quote in!). It was a powerful experience taking part, it really brought together all of my experiences as I was transitioning from trainee to qualified clinical psychologist. I also applied for a post where one of the “desired criteria” was experience of using mental health services. This sent a very strong message that my experience was valued, but I still felt my heart beating heavily in my chest as I typed a vague line in my application about drawing on my experience to consider client expectations and barriers to engagement! It wasn’t raised in the interview, but I felt glad I had taken up the opportunity.

When I first started training I felt very conscious of my “difference” and needed some space to work through this. Currently it feels like one piece of me, amongst many. I don’t want the “wounded healer” to be the entirety of my identity; it isn’t how I see myself. I’ve had many experiences in my life, good and bad, some of which relate to “mental health”, many don’t. These experiences are a part of me; they’re not all of me.

Throughout my training I was looking for some kind of model of how to juggle these multiple identities and how open to be. No one has really been able to show me this, and I accept that I’ll need to carve my own way. My only real examples are eminent professionals who speak about their experiences from the relative security of their established positions. Professionals with lived experience aren’t very visible and I worry that I’m somehow perpetuating this silence but remaining anonymous, as if I have something to hide. So here I am: I’m a recently qualified clinical psychologist, I’ve had a  few psychiatric diagnoses, I’ve had a few different treatments, I’ve been in and out and around the system but I’ve eventually come out the better for it. If I ever write my memoirs they’ll make for a colourful read. Now I work as a healthcare professional and that’s where I am now.

Will I be writing something like this one day? Who knows

Will I be writing something like this one day? Who knows

So how has my disclosure gone? It’s mostly been a complete non-event. Using my own name online has facilitating making some professional connections that I’m not sure would have been possible otherwise, so I am feeling a benefit. At work I sometimes share my experiences with colleagues if I feel it would be helpful to them. This doesn’t happen often and I can’t say I find it particularly find it easy, despite trying to embody some openness. I would be very unlikely to talk about my experiences of services with a client, I want to keep my focus on them, but I think if someone directly asked I wouldn’t try and dodge the question.

Personal disclosure is usually discouraged in therapists. Whilst I think this is acceptable I do think we need to acknowledge the impossibility of a professional being an entire blank canvas to splatter with projections. We’re always disclosing, from our accents and mannerisms, the way we hold ourselves, the way we laugh, to scars, wrinkles and wedding bands, these little things are always telling something of us to others. We all have a life outside of work and it would be disingenuous to our clients to pretend as if we do not. I don’t feel a need to take down my previous writing out of fear of how it will impact on my career. All professionals have had a private life, with its associated highs and lows, and we bring this with us and draw on it, whether consciously or not. I don’t particularly want my experiences to define who I am as a professional, but I don’t deny them either. I don’t plan on being a Rufus May-type figure and I like some separation between my own experiences and my work. So this is a quiet “outing”, amidst all the other topics I have written and will continue to write about. This is my contribution to the ongoing dialogue around “lived experience” and I hope my openness can do some good for other people in a similar place.

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2 thoughts on “Wounded healer or undercover crazy? Coming out (quietly)

  1. To be perfectly frank, I wouldn’t trust any mental health professional who didn’t have some lived experience of mental health issues. Over the 30+ years of my own mental ilness, I’ve been subjected to one bad cpn/psychiatrist/counsellor/worker after another. Naturally I’ve developed a cynical view of mh professionals, most of whom had no lived experience, or, if they did, didn’t disclose except as a way to get me to trust them, then subsequently betraying that trust by making value judgements about my lived experience, as if, because they’d had depression too, they were qualified to frame my experiences within their world view, and very often did. I think if more mh professionals disclosed to their patients/SUs, it might go some way to breaking the ice, make patients feel ‘safe’ or understood, as so many of us, in our dealings with psychiatric & other mh services, have found ourselves othered and/or belittled by people who profess to know our experiences of illness better than we do, or shut down our narratives because their experience of illness & care has been radically different to ours. I think it’s good that mh professionals disclose, where appropriate, and if that disclosure brings a more equable rapport between clinicians and patients, and it is used to aid patients, rather than to give them a false sense of mutual understanding in order to further the clinician’s ‘hold’ over the patient, perhaps it is all to the good.

    • Thank you for commenting, I think you raise a really important point. I don’t want to be somehow blinded by my experience and assume that others have had exactly the same experience as me and I have some kind of ‘special’ insight into their suffering or what will help them. I may have used services but I know I occupy a pretty privileged position. I’m never going to relate 100% to someone’s experience (no one could!) and I wouldn’t want my disclosure to be experienced as ‘I’ve had mental illness but I’ve gotten better and now have a job, you should too’.

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