Are Pseudonyms and Advocacy Compatible?

Not unless our life or livelihood are on the line

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

There’s so much I haven’t told anyone so what if I told everyone?

This is the question I’ve sought to answer since recovering my writing voice after it went missing for five years as a result of being incapacitated by major depressive disorder.

Every time I come to the page, I must ask myself how far I’m prepared to go in the name of mental health advocacy.

Should I hide behind a pseudonym so I can dig deeper? And if I do that, how will it serve my goal of helping end the silent stigma surrounding depression?

And if I remain anonymous, what happens to accountability?

There’s a reason reputable news outlets seldom publish anonymous work.

And whenever a publication prints something written by someone using a pseudonym, you can rest assured at least one editor knows the true identity of the writer.

In a culture where hiding behind a screen, spewing vitriol, and creating a persona designed to deceive is routine, having the courage of your opinions is rebellious.

But as long as you choose not to put your name to your work, it doesn’t matter how truthful your narrative or how valid your message, there will always be a shadow of mistrust hanging over it.

Unless you write fiction or poetry, in which case having a pen name — or several — is a long-standing literary tradition. Look at Pessoa!

Writing is how I’m reconnecting with the world at large after years steeped in depression and isolation.

What I write about is neither pleasant nor easy to put into words, it’s deeply uncomfortable work.

Mental health and its attendant consequences like professional death and resulting hardship seldom make for light banter.

Depression is a harsh judge, an illness wont to label its sufferers as failures so documenting it when depressed is a constant balancing act between being the mouthpiece for the propaganda in your head and producing semi-objective copy.

A mix of both is key to getting through to readers.

If I want you to relate to my current predicament, I need to show you what it does to me and how it messes with my mind and sense of self rather than just tell you.

The same goes for any kind of nonfiction work. The idea is to let the reader into your head, and into your heart as well.

Although we often shy away from overly emotional copy, humans are emotional creatures. Feelings and emotions are how we process the world around us.

The gutsier our words and the more willing we are to be ourselves— imperfections and all — the more others relate.

However, this doesn’t mean going all in on “woe is me” and producing voyeuristic copy dripping with overwrought pathos for pity clicks.

Pity always implies a certain amount of contempt and is therefore anathema to advocacy, whose core principle is the promotion of human dignity for all.

There’s no predicting how anyone might react to anything you write.

Being open about your struggles might come across as self-indulgent claptrap to one person while another will find solace in a blunt, unredacted narrative.

Putting your name to your words — or remaining anonymous — won’t prevent you from making a fool of yourself or from infuriating people on occasion.

But I can’t imagine advocating for anything or anyone — least of all myself — by hiding behind a pseudonym. It matters to me that those reading my work should understand there’s nothing shameful about being sick, broke, and struggling.

Or indeed about being scrappy and wanting to get back on your feet so badly that you’re prepared to let it all hang out in public to achieve your goal.

I’ve been living on the internet since forever and used to love pseudonyms before I became a journalist many years ago.

When I did, I understood why bylines mattered so much.

The relationship between a writer and a reader is a contract of trust, one that is never open-ended but instead renewed with every published piece.

As many editors will tell you, you’re only as good as the last thing you wrote.

And when you write a stinker, you have to commit to doing better the next time. Sometimes, you even need to issue a correction or a public apology if it was really, really bad.

Ideally, this keeps you honest and real regardless of the subject matter.

When you write under your own name, you must also be prepared for awkward moments.

My present and future involve many uncomfortable conversations with prospective clients, editors, and HR departments. I approach each of them as an opportunity to humanize mental illness.

Because advocacy is a mission and a commitment, something you do all the time and embody. Much like journalism, it is service, never self-serving.

When writing about anything as thorny as mental health, there is a hard-won contract of trust between the reader and you.

Hard-won because putting yourself out there is counter-intuitive. It scrambles your self-preservation instinct. It also tramples over whatever shred of self-confidence you might have been able to salvage.

Depression is vulnerability personified, and owning up to it in print is a sacrifice you should only make if it doesn’t cause you any more distress, or puts your life or livelihood at risk.

If you’re OK with outing yourself as mentally ill then remember this kind of work is about an issue bigger than you and this will help you transcend the terror of letting others see you as vulnerable.

By doing so, you often give another person permission to acknowledge all of their humanity, too.

Alas, societal pressure often leads us to attach value judgments to mental illness.

Sufferers are often portrayed as “lesser than” or as “loners”, with the tacit implication that we’re either unworthy, dangerous, or both.

This is harmful and irresponsible writing, and yet it isn’t an uncommon trope among hobbyists unfamiliar with journalism ethics and only concerned about their bottom line.

Unpacking whatever has been silencing us amid rampant prejudice is daring work, but it has to be done if we ever want attitudes to change.

As long as stigma persists, the whole endeavor will remain cringeworthy to the extreme but personal storytelling can help dispel it.

Being fully human without holding back is the only way others can relate to us, even when they have no firsthand experience of what we write about. This is how connection happens.

A pseudonym is a prison of our own making but we can reclaim our freedom by finding the courage to be ourselves, broken bits and all.

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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