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How Sharing Your Mental Health Journey Can Help

By Sheila O’Shea

Everybody has a story. People who have been through trauma and difficult times especially. They’ll often have a story that helps them make sense of what happened. Mine was the one I told about “The Unpleasantness.” It started with a beautiful morning where I felt absolutely miserable and ended with my parents picking me up from a mental hospital after a five-day stay. I have the whole narrative emblazoned on my brain, and I’ve told the story many times.

Stories Can Help You

Granted, I don’t tell the story of “The Unpleasantness” to any passerby. When you mention you’ve been in a mental hospital, most people get kind of spooked. But when it feels right, I talk about it freely. Reactions vary. I’ve never had a truly negative one. Some people are astonished and in awe of me for making it through what I went through. Other people aren’t quite as amazed but agree with me that what happened definitely—and this is usually the word—sucked.

The story changed a series of calamities with no sense into a narrative where each calamity had a place and meaning. It allowed me to notice the absurdities and find humor in them. And it allowed me to parcel it out from the rest of my experience—this happened to me once; it is not happening anymore.

Stories Can Help Other People

A friend and I were at a party once where we ended up huddled together in a corner, comparing diagnoses. My friend told me his stories—the ones about his struggles with mental illness, and the extreme stresses that exacerbated his condition. I told him about “The Unpleasantness,” and my life before diagnosis when I didn’t understand what was going on with me. True stories for true stories. We grew closer as friends after that. I didn’t find out until later the impact my story had had on him.

My friend had been in treatment for his condition, but one part of my story had struck him. I’d told him about the moment of decision when I called 911. My thoughts had taken a dark and dangerous turn, and I was worried I would do something drastic. He said that when I’d gotten to the part when I’d looked at my thought patterns and decided that “this is not right,” he examined his own thought patterns and came to a similar conclusion.

He resolved to take his diagnosis more seriously and put more effort into getting better. He’s improved a great deal and is handling stress more constructively. Hearing my story and acting on what he learned from it is one of the reasons, he maintains, that he’s doing as well as he is.

Before then, I hadn’t fully realized how powerful talking about those things could be. I don’t think I’d even understood completely how much the story was helping myself, let alone other people.

Don’t be afraid to tell your story. You never know who you’re going to help.


A portrait image of Sheila O'Shea.

Sheila O’Shea is a writer, recovering poet, and one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. She acted in Theatre Gael’s production of Waiting for Godot, sang on the album The Mod Mod Sounds of Middlesex, and DJed for Emory’s college radio station. She’s currently working on The Ten Thousand Flowers Project, in which she draws flowers and gives them away to people, with the intention of drawing and giving away ten thousand of them. She hopes to hit 5,000 flowers by the start of 2022. You can find out how to get one at http://wonderbink.com/10kflowers. She also works as a freelance copywriter, with an emphasis on narrative marketing. You can find out about her writing services at http://sheilawrites.com

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