Why I can tell the world about my mental illness, but not my best friends
When someone asks me how I am, I always say “Fine, thank you.” I don’t even think about it — it’s a social script. It’s just what you say to sound polite, and to avoid burdening others with whatever your real feelings happen to be. It doesn’t feel like there’s room for an answer that’s sadder, or more complicated.
A lot gets left unsaid about our feelings when we talk to others. This is especially true if you live with mental illness.
Often the truth isn’t “I’m fine, thank you.” It’s “I’m struggling with something I usually find easy,” or “I’m confused about my life,” or “I’m so agitated that I’ve been pacing through my apartment all day.” Sometimes it’s, “I don’t even know.”
During my ill-fated attempt at law school in 2012, I got really sick without telling anyone. At first, I didn’t even think I was sick. I would work until late at night and go to bed at 2 a.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. in time for class the next day. I wasn’t just working toward a law degree either. I was writing a lot, as well as keeping up with fanciful hobbies and projects. I had Chrome tabs full of articles on my laptop, and I read them all by switching constantly between them. Occasionally people would irritate me – I stopped going to some lectures because I felt the professor talked too slowly – but generally I felt great.
The constant activity took a toll. I eventually crashed. My writing no longer had a fresh momentum. I was out of ideas. Nothing interested me, whereas before, everything had interested me. Slowly, I withdrew from life. I spent more days in bed watching Skins than not. I didn’t make it to most of my classes. I thought a lot about dying. I was always just so tired.
Eventually I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is characterized by stretches of mania (the overactivity I described) and stretches of depression.
When that happened, I was faced with the challenge of whether to tell others, and if so, how?
For months, I kept quiet about my intense moods. I had a lot of fears fueling my silence. The first was stigma: I was afraid that people would look at me differently, and either coddle me or stop liking me. I was also afraid of upsetting others. Sometimes, when you tell others your bad news, you end up having to support them. You’re the one who has to convince them that you’ll be okay during a time when you are not sure of that yourself.
But my biggest problem was that I just didn’t know how to bring it up.
In a social context where it’s hard to mention that you’re feeling anything but “fine” — even when you’re explicitly asked — it’s near-impossible to say, “Oh, by the way, I have a severe mental illness.” And so, after a few months, I announced my diagnosis via a Facebook group message. I wanted to get it over with, and I couldn’t find a natural place in my conversations to mention it.
My friends responded supportively, which was helpful. But even though they know that I have bipolar disorder, I still struggle with telling those I know and love when I’ve had a setback, or a relapse, or hell, when I’m just having a run-of-the-mill bad day.
The irony is that I’m now very open about my experiences with bipolar disorder. I’ve written about it for a range of publications, I’ve spoken about it on live radio, and from my Twitter feed alone, it would be easy to discern that I have a strong interest in mental health.
But these are all spaces I’ve been given to discuss topics that matter to me.
Writing about mental health in particular is meant to be thought-provoking, critical, and deep. Daily conversations are different. They’re meant to go smoothly. It’s hard to admit to struggle.
I still find myself hiding my mental illness.
This is a problem because so many mental health awareness campaigns are all about getting people to speak up about having difficulties.
We’re instructed to talk to a trusted friend or teacher, make an appointment with a doctor, or call a helpline. I’m happy to say that these frank conversations about mental health are usually easier than they seem. Sometimes people don’t understand, or respond in otherwise disappointing ways — but help is always somewhere close. Still though, leaping into a conversation like that is really hard.
All of us, whether we have a mental illness or not, need to make room for emotions in our conversations. We need to show each other that there’s no need to hide. We can do this by asking each other about our lives, by showing that we don’t hold stigmatizing beliefs about mental illness, by avoiding derogatory remarks and language, by not belittling others, by listening to each other carefully, and by responding to each other kindly.
These are skills.
Most people aren’t naturally good at taking bad news, putting themselves in others’ shoes, or validating others’ experiences. I was horrible at making room for difficult emotions before my diagnosis, and I’m still learning to do better.
I’m also learning not to hide.
After all, hiding is as difficult as openness. It makes you feel alone, and loneliness is what mental illness feasts on. I keep having to remind myself that it’s safe to be frank about these things. I try my best. Not just for me, but also in the hope that others will see that it’s okay to talk about feelings, and might open up themselves if they need to.
If everyone was more accepting of the diverse, real, truthful ways that people might actually respond to “How are you?” then those real answers might actually come out — as would more opportunities to support each other.