Secrets and Lies


Last year, I spent a month in hospital, which was fine by me, or as fine as any severe illness can be, but it was a psychiatric unit and the moment you utter those two words, a hush falls across the room and then, like the faintest breeze, the whispers begin.

I have been in four psychiatric units, so I know those whispers well, although they bewilder me, because I am very open about my illness, which is bipolar disorder. If I have already spoken the words, what is there to talk about, what is left to say?

This time it was different. I tried to take my own life because the depression had deepened and deepened until my very existence became unendurable. It was hell, but so was waking up to discover that I had a different identity. I had become A Secret, despite being the least secretive of people. I never lie, unless that lie serves to protect somebody else.

“What should I tell people?” a friend said.

“Tell them the truth.”

She looked doubtful. “Are you sure? They’ll talk. They’re already talking.”

“Perhaps the truth will give them less to talk about.”

I hate secrets and lies. The more a secret is whispered, the noisier it becomes until that web of lies is woven so tight that it is almost impossible to find your way back to the beginning. This time those whispers became incredibly loud, or as loud as a whisper can be, which, as we all know, can be very loud indeed.

I had scarcely been in hospital for a few hours when somebody I hardly know told my close friends I had taken an overdose. He said it in a whisper, of course, carrying the news from ear to ear as if it was too shameful to be spoken out loud. They were furious with him; the gossipmonger of doom.

If my actions become a secret, something only to be spoken about in furtive corners, then I become an object of shame. If I am shamed, I feel guilty and those emotions are more corrosive to mental health, than any others I can think of.

I am no more ashamed of my illness than I would be of having heart disease or a liver condition. It is an illness, no more and no less. I am not defined by it, I rarely complain about it, and if I am unwell, I take to my bed, just as others do when they are ill.

But suicide? Those whispered asides made me feel I had done something so terrible that I must stay quiet and bear the weight of secrets and lies; none of which are of my doing. So I choose to tell the truth because if I know one thing about depressive illness, it is that silence kills. Shame destroys and guilt erodes and for what? For an illness that, for some people, dare not speak its name, so great is the guilt and stigma that surrounds it. Depression gets infinitely worse if the person who suffers feels compelled to lie about the very thing that is destroying them. Or if others lie for them.

“I’ve told everybody that you’ve been away,” another friend says.

“What, with the fairies?”

“Not funny. You know how people gossip.”

Indeed I do, just as I know that others fall silent. After my suicide attempt, somebody crossed the road to avoid me, others spoke, but looked straight through me, as if I did not exist.

Close friends murmured excuses. “They don’t know what to say.” Except, of course, they do, in whispered asides, “I really shouldn’t be telling you this but …”

What to say? Hello, will do.

This is the first time I have written about it or made it in any sense public and that, in its own way, is a tragedy. I write about everything, I share myself generously, but this? This, I know, will bring with it accusations of selfishness, intimations of cowardice. They will be whispered, of course, just as suicide is kept secret within families because they fear shame and recrimination, a shame that, too often, makes them feel compelled to lie. Secrets and lies are bad bedfellows to happiness.

So let me explain something. Suicidal ideation or, in plain English, constant thoughts of death are a clinical symptom of depressive illness. You rarely have one without the other, just as you rarely have pneumonia without the symptom of fever. It is the first question a psychiatrist will ask, to discover the depth of the illness, just as the first thing a doctor will do is to take your temperature.

Feeling suicidal is not a moral failing, it is merely an indication that somebody is very ill. And suicide, anyway, is a misnomer. People do not want to die, they just don’t want to be here, to inhabit a place that has become unbearable. We do not live, we endure. This was my sixth episode of a depression so deep, it defies description. I cannot remember the months that surrounded it, my memories are shrouded in a black, impenetrable fog. I am told I was unconscious in hospital for five days and even the days following, when I emerged from that deep sleep, are lost to me.

A doctor said, “You have been extremely unwell.”

That, said simply, is the truth.

It has taken me months to recover, a recovery hindered because I found it difficult to leave the house and walk the street of whispers. I was A Secret, to be hidden away. I have never told anybody how much that hurt me. It is bad enough to endure a terrible illness without the kindness and comfort that recovering from an illness usually brings. I am inexpressibly grateful to my close friends and family, who made no judgements and sat with me, talking, in silence, or whatever I could manage.

So I say this. Keep no secrets and tell no lies. Ask for the truth and I will tell you. At the very least, say hello.

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  • Goldmoon

    Hello Sally, it is so nice to read an article of yours. When you wrote for The Sunday Times, yours was always the first page I would visit, and that paper made an error of judgement when they decided your advice column was – what shall I say?- superfluous to their requirements? Not to mine!! I am so very sorry to hear that you have been unwell, and I do hope that this marks your return to journalism. You always have interesting, heartfelt and relevant things to say that seem to come from a life deeply lived. My husband is a good man who has a lifelong depression, and when it is all getting just too hard to deal with, I remind myself that he is suffering from an illness as real and tough and unasked for as any cancer or heart condition. It is only in recent years that I “keep no secrets and tell no lies”, and completely agree that it is the only way to live. I wish you well.

  • Victoria Health

    On behalf of Sally, thank you so much.

  • Melanie Harrison

    Hello! Welcome back Sally, I’ve missed reading your articles.

  • Ale

    Hello Sally! I have read and enjoyed your work for years. You are a very talented and courageous journalist. I wish that I could hug you in person but failing that please accept this digital version. Stay with us. We need your clear eyed and honest views.

  • Debbie

    Hello Sally! Welcome back, brave lady. I am so sorry to read of what you have been through and the street of whispers. When you walk along that street, remember how
    small it is compared to the web of many, many thousands of us who are linked to you
    through your wise writings and are surrounding you with that kindness and comfort. Few on the street of whispers will have that. Sending all good wishes. x

  • AOC

    So brave, so fabulous, so true! Your article will help many.

  • Pauline Peel

    Hello Sally – I’m sorry people have found it difficult to understand why you might want not to be here any more. I’m happy that you didn’t succeed in harming yourself and hope you are better. Love, Pauline.

  • Charlie


  • chris

    Hey closing my eyes, thinking of you and sending you a great big hug… Nuff

  • jo tometzki

    Hello Sally
    I love your article. I too hate secrets and lies. They are the worst hindrance to mental well-being. Anyway, they are pointless. The truth always wins; it has to, it’s by nature the truth. Stay well. Sending you positive thoughts.

  • Rachel Stafford

    Beautifully written article, Sally. It’s like you were writing my story, and I’m sure others felt that way while reading it. The stigma of having a mental illness needs to go away. Since being diagnosed with depression/OCD, I have tried to be very open with others about it. I try to educate them. I am a teacher, and this profession is highly stressful. I was told years ago by one of my counselors that teachers made up a large percentage of his cliental. But at my school, we are like family, so it’s a safe environment in which to share. Other places that I worked when I was younger were not so supportive. I, too, was hospitalized when I was 30 years old, and it was the one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but also one of the best. I met other people who were so much like me that I no longer felt “crazy”. Depression is very similar to diseases like diabetes. There’s not really a cure for it, but it can be managed and treated. I don’t want to just endure this life, I want to WANT to live and be happy. Day by day. That’s what we have to do. Again, thank you for the wonderful article.

  • Lynn Summers

    Hello Sally,
    A wonderful article touching on many areas of depression, suicide and secrets and lies. The stigma associated with bipolar illness is so prevalent, even in this day and age of the light being shined on it, that it confuses and hurts me. I am ashamed to admit – I lie, I keep my illness a secret; I do this because I believe people wouldn’t understand and relationships would change.

  • Gina

    wow. I have tears running down my face. I am ini the midst of an awful bout of depression right now. I have no support. I do not even at this moment have a doctor. So much has transpired in my life there’s no way that I can even cope myself. I have sat here at this very desk with means to end my life only a few weeks ago. Thank you for your truth, your courage and for reminding us we have every right to tell our truth.