I choose not to be anonymous.
For four years or so now, I’ve revealed what seems like an endless supply of embarrassing and painful moments from my life in written form. In every single one of the articles, my name is attached. I’ve never written with a pseudonym or anonymous in any way (except for that brief time I was “Manny Friedman” when the antisemites chased me).
I’ve heard a lot of feedback in that time about this choice. Especially from others who want to write, or who are drawn to this style of writing and want to do it themselves.
“I can’t believe you share so much!”
“Doesn’t revealing so much hurt your chances of finding a good job?”
“Do you ever regret sharing so much?”
I get that reaction, in a way. I didn’t exactly go into this with the plan to reveal crazy things about myself, my real goal at the beginning was to simply look inwards and try to write about things I deeply believed in, as well as the things that most scared me. It just so happened to be that those things often revealed powerful moments in my life.
But it has been an interesting experience, to get those responses, but then to see what else people write, to see what’s going on in the background.
The thing is that most people who experience online writing tend to see it through basically two dimensions: that of the writer, and those of the people who comment. In other words, it is the words that they see that determine the effect a piece of writing has.
But as a writer, you get access to a hidden dimension: that of the the inner life of your readers. The life that is hidden away, and that only some are willing to share through private correspondence.
And it is through those messages, that you gain access to an even bigger realization: for every person who emails you, there are many who don’t, many who stay quiet, but who are experiencing something similar.
I’d like to share some of my takeaways from that experience, from receiving this hidden feedback, and why it’s helped form my writing over time. And I hope, if you are a person who writes, or who wants to create in any way, that you may realize that the effect an artist has is far more far-reaching than we can possibly imagine.
1. Your experience is shared
Think about it: you are scared to talk about your experience. Maybe it’s being abused, or a mental breakdown, or difficulties in marriage. And you understand the reasons why people stay quiet about such things, because you live it.
So, there is no doubt that there are others who are silent for the same reason. Perhaps many people, perhaps more than you can imagine.
When I first started writing about getting sent to a mental hospital because of an extreme manic episode that revealed I was bipolar, I honestly thought my experience was unique, one that only happened to really nutty people, people like me who seemed to attract crazy into their lives.
At first, when I would receive a message every now and then from those who had read my pieces about my experience, I figured that the magnetic power of the internet to bring people together was bringing some of these disparate people into my life.
But as the years wore on, and I wrote about my experiences even more, I was blown away by how many people quietly told me about their own experience in a mental hospital. Some for much worse experiences, for much longer. People you would never expect to have had any difficulties. People who seem “normal” and together. In other words, people totally unlike me. They were everywhere. And a picture of the world started to come together in my mind that was no longer just what I saw or perceived, or the way people presented themselves. People tend not to talk about their hardships, for better or for worse, and one of the side effects of this is that the others who go through these hardships feel alone. Some things aren’t discussed, and so they exist in our minds as unique events, unshared.
The beauty of attaching my name to my writing is that people could tell me about these things without fear of judgment. And this gave me an opportunity to realize that I was not unique in this sense. I was just one of many. And that gave me incredible peace and a mission to continue sharing.
2. You can change the world
There is a side effect to not speaking about our problems that is even more powerful than people feeling alone in their pain: nothing changes.
We can see this in the way rape and sexual abuse are finally being addressed in America today. For thousands of years, abuse was either hidden from view or openly accepted. Now, as its victims have become empowered to have a voice, their experiences are transforming our views of sexual abuse.
I am thankfully not a victim of abuse, but my experience writing about mental health caused me to be more mindful of the quiet people suddenly speaking, suddenly having a voice. And when I saw the statistics about abuse, and how few people come forward, and how many perpetrators escape justice, and I started to hear more of the stories coming out about the orthodox world’s epidemic of abuse and silence, I realized that the same effect I had seen in discussing my issues with mental health existed around abuse ten-fold.
That there is a guilty party in abuse situations makes openly discussing these topics much scarier than things like mental health in which there is no one to blame but God. And so the victims often hide their experiences for decades, and for this reason are even more likely not to be believed.
i cannot even begin to describe how many people have privately told me about being raped or abused after I started writing about mental health. People from all walks of life. Women, men, well-off, poor, married. Rabbis (emphasis on the plural form), poets, doctors. They are everywhere, and the only reason you don’t know about it is because they are quiet.
And, as we’ve seen in cases like Bill Cosby’s, it is only after just one of them speaks up that others do. Abuse is perhaps the most distilled version of painful experiences being hidden from public view that cause further silence. The effects of this silence can’t be understated: it’s the very reason so little is done to combat abuse, why those who feel justified in shaming victims continue along in their merry fantasy-land of a world with no abuse, why so few perpetrators are jailed, why people descend into mental illness from leaving their wounds untreated.
And the flip side is that when someone does speak up, and adds their name (I am not saying everyone should do this, I only wish to share the positives of doing so), then suddenly healing takes place. Everything above is flipped: much more is done to combat abuse, people find it harder to shame victims as more of them come forward, justice is served in some cases, and the horrific wounds of victimhood can finally be addressed.
Of course, abuse is just one thing that we hide from view. Perhaps one of the more extreme, but it can teach us so much about the power of silence, and the power of speaking, the power of attaching our name to an experience and sharing it with the world. We can truly change everything just by openly embracing who we are and the experiences we’ve gone through. In ways we can’t even imagine.
3. Inner peace
To be clear, I do not think everyone must speak or write about their painful experiences. But if there is an urge inside of you, a pain that is unbearable or even quietly pushing the pressure points in your psyche, there is perhaps nothing more calming, more powerful, than sharing your experience with others.
People tend to think the effect will be the opposite: they are worried they will feel alone, they will be “marked” their entire lives. In my experience, this is more of a reflection of fear than of reality.
Besides therapy, there is nothing that has changed my relationship to mental health, and painful moments in general, more than openly sharing them with the world. To be able to dig deep, come up with a piece of writing close to my heart, and find that others have experienced what I’ve experienced, or want to express sympathy, or to simply discuss and understand it, is an incomparably beautiful experience.
It’s perhaps not for everyone. But for those who do, they will find that the same will happen. That’s been part of my work here at Hevria, to get those around me to embrace this fear, to find their inner spark, and to believe that the painful moments in their lives are part of a larger narrative that cannot be told without all the parts that have shaped us. And I’ve seen in the people who attach their names to their experience a powerful shift in their perceptions that I first saw only in my own life. All of this has made me more sure than ever that openness has a power that can transform our lives for the better.
There are so many other reasons that were bouncing around in my head, but for some reason these are the three that have stood out for me the most. If you’ve had a similar experience, please feel free to share them in the comments. Our connecting, being here together in this virtual space, has been one of the most beautiful benefits of my writing about my experiences. And I hope that this is only the beginning (of the sharing, not the pain!).