Columns > Published on April 28th, 2020

Why I Write My Mental Illness into My Non-Fiction

Image by Andra Piacquadio

The first non-fiction piece I ever wrote about mental health was in the fall of 2012. It was an op-ed for my school newspaper urging my fellow students to stop joking about self-harm. I wrote it in this weird space between first-and-third person, because I wanted it to be personal but I wasn’t ready to admit that I was the person hurt by the insensitive jokes.

I was overwhelmed by the response. It wasn’t massive, I didn’t shoot to small-town college fame overnight. Instead, a couple of people came up to me at random places around campus, and did something I never expected — they thanked me.

They told me my story had made them, or their friend, feel seen. Or that it had helped them understand something about a loved one. That it was a message they wished they could get out, they just...were scared.

There are two ways writing about mental illness helps those who read it: it helps people see themselves, and it helps people see others.

And I totally, unreservedly understand that fear. Sometimes, when I’m about to hit publish on a blog post or pitch an article that deals with a particularly personal aspect of my mental illness, I feel it, too. The trepidation — what if someone thinks this is too much? The worry — what if a future employer sees this and doesn’t hire me? The anxiety — what if someone is triggered by this?

There are so many things to fear when you’re sharing from the depths of your heart, and believe me, I’ve feared them all.

But I can choose not to let that stop me.

I believe sharing honestly about mental illness is one of the most important ways we can combat stigma around it, and I want to be on the frontlines of that fight. Even if it means putting myself at risk. Even if it means getting taken to task sometime. Even if it means sometimes tempering my story to ensure it’s not triggering to others.

There are two ways writing about mental illness helps those who read it: it helps people see themselves, and it helps people see others. I speak from experience when I say that it can be validating, refreshing, and downright life-saving to see yourself represented in someone else’s life. To see someone you admire and look up to, perhaps, share that they feel like you do. You’re not broken, darling; you’re just like me.

On the flip side, it’s hard to understand that which you don’t know, and it’s hard to fully hate that which you do. (Not impossible, of course; just harder.) And sharing my story with mental illness is a way for others to get to know me, get to know mental illness, understand and maybe stop fearing it.

As a caveat here, before I segue into the other reason I write about my own experience with mental illness (in addition to benefiting others), I want to emphasize that not everyone can or wants to do this. And you know what? That’s so freaking fine. If you have a mental illness but don’t want to share that in non-fiction or even in Tweets, that is your choice! Do what’s best for you.

Onward, now.

The second reason I write about what it’s like to live with the diagnoses I’ve been given (bipolar II, depression, anxiety) is that it helps me. It helps me parse through what I’m feeling. Writing is the way I process the world. Writing is the way I get to know my own emotions, my own feelings. Through poems, fiction, and non-fiction, I’ve come to have a clearer view of the world around me.

Sometimes, my dark moods overwhelm me. They cloud my judgement and my ability to see the world clearly. In those times, I turn to writing. It smooths out the creases, brushes away the dust, returns light to my eyes. It helps me see myself and others better.

And sharing that? Well, I’m an outward processor. People’s reactions to my thoughts inform the thoughts themselves.

So there it is: why I write about mental illness, not just in fiction, but in non-fiction.

About the author

Karis Rogerson is a mid-20s aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn and works at a cafe—so totally that person they warn you about when you declare your English major. In addition to embracing the cliched nature of her life, she spends her days reading, binge-watching cop shows (Olivia Benson is her favorite character) and fangirling about all things literary, New York and selfie-related. You can find her other writing on her website and maybe someday you’ll be able to buy her novels.

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