Mentally ill or not, we all have facades that we present to the world to help us cope with our surroundings. Some of us choose to have perfect makeup, beautiful hair, manicured nails, or maybe a nice car to meet clients in. How about that giant house you’re paying out the nose for? It’s all part of how we wish to present ourselves to the outsiders that we have to deal with. But what about people that are in our inner circles? It’s harder to maintain this facade with your family, your lover, your children, your best friends. When you live with mental illness these facades are infinitely more difficult to maintain. Sometimes you have several, but there are cracks in all of them, and over time the people whom you love the most will bear witness to the darkness that flows like nightmares through those cracks.
Who benefits from our hiding?
In short, everyone; for a while. The reason we do it is not to prevent people from knowing, but to protect people from their own fears. Mental illness is an exceptionally abstract concept for the professionals that deal with it, it is infinitely harder to understand for people who have no previous knowledge of it. It is also a security blanket for those of us who are ill. In a lot of cases, family members have their own preconceptions of what it means to be mentally ill, and they usually aren’t good. They classify people with depression as lazy, people with bipolar as crazy, and people with schizophrenia as dangers to society. If you can’t will yourself into being better, than you are an attention-seeker, a downer debbie that craves drama. Turn that frown upside down, and get over yourself. We’ve all heard it. So our masks provide a protection from the people who we know won’t understand, people who will unintentionally (or perhaps, intentionally) hurt us with their archaic opinions. It’s one thing if this is an old spinster aunt who refuses to learn anything that was published after 1975, but what happens if this person is a parent, a sibling, or even worse, your spouse? Do we continually mend the cracks in the facade in the hopes that they never realise that it’s as bad as it is? Or do we put all of our cards on the table with the full knowledge that they may choose to walk away from us?
Coming out as mentally ill is never an easy conversation, it requires a lot of trust, high hopes, and if you’re lucky enough, some liquid luck to make it go the way that you need it to. None of my admittance conversations have gone the way I expected them to. (I’ve never been successful at brewing liquid luck).I have recounted this before, but I feel like I have glossed over a lot of the emotions that I had felt, so I will tell you again, hopefully in better detail. When I told my husband that I was going to start taking medication to deal with illness, it was not the first time we had talked about psychotic disorders. He had grown up in the camp that believed that fresh air and exercise were the best way to deal with the cobwebs in your attic. I had went so far as to get a gym membership, and I worked my ass off. I was at the gym every day, I ran constantly, I used tanning beds, all in a fruitless attempt to find out that yes, exercise would cure whatever was wrong with me. After a few months of being at the gym every day for most of the day, I realised that although I looked good, and felt good while I was there, it was not a cure to my problems. I would be able to incorporate it into a feel-good plan, but there was no way I was going to continue to survive without medical intervention. Knowing his opinion was terrifying. I was worried that he would think that I was faking it, or that I was unappreciative of the wonderful life he has worked so hard to provide for me. What do I have to be depressed about? He’s given me literally everything I’ve ever wanted, including working hard so that I could stay home with our kids. I have no real problems. What I had to learn to accept before I could talk to him was that it has nothing to do with being sad, or greedy, or disappointed in my life. It is a flaw in my chemistry, and I can still feel happy or loving while living with the underlying problems that I have.
I waited for a long time to tell him, I had to convince myself that he had the right to know what was going on with me, and he also deserved the chance to say that he was willing to put up with it or he wasn’t, lying by omission is still a lie, and I felt guilty thinking that he was unknowingly dealing with all of my demons. If he wanted a clean slate for himself, that was his choice, and I had no right to take that away. We eventually had our discussion, and he decided that although he didn’t understand it, he would do his best to support me, and hopefully learn a few things along the way. I have found myself to be considerably gifted in the spouse department, because not only has his ideas of mental illness shifted, but he has taken such an active role in my health that I truly feel like I have one person in my life that no longer needs to see me in a mask. It’s liberating and vindicating, and if he is the only person in my life that makes an effort to understand, I will count myself a very lucky woman.
What if he didn’t understand? That was always an option. I had to be ready to completely destroy my life to include him in this dark part of it, what if he decided he couldn’t stay? It happens to people with serious injuries and cancer, it definitely happens to people who are mentally ill. What happens if you open up to your loved ones and they can’t or won’t support you? It’s a terrifying thought, but it is equally terrifying to live with the knowledge that every day you come closer to letting slip that you aren’t ‘like the rest of them’. Part of receiving treatment for mental illness is admitting that you are stronger than you think, in ways that you don’t understand. It takes an incredible amount of strength to keep yourself together in times when you wish you could fall apart, and an even larger amount of strength to take that first step in admitting that you need help in the first place. We live our lives in terror, and adding the uncertainty of how your loved ones will react makes getting out of bed seem impossible on most days.
The point of this post: Who do you manage your illness for?
As much as we love and respect the people that are closest to us, if we manage our illness based on what they think and feel, we aren’t actually managing our illness. It is another facade, that will eventually crack and leave us exposed and potentially dangerous. The more we hide and sweep things under the rug, the easier it becomes to lose sight of why we are taking these steps to take care of ourselves in the first place. Yes, we learn to manage our illnesses because we love our families and friends, and we want to be the best version of us that we can for them, but the most important person that we are managing for is us. If you forget that, you are causing an infinite amount of extra problems and fears for yourself that you do not aid in your recovery. There is no value in glossing over the facts of your illness, and it is selfish to hide the scary parts because you are afraid that people won’t love you the same way. Maybe the won’t, but that seems like a pretty solid indicator that they also have problems within themselves that they haven’t acknowledged yet.
Dealing with someone else’s mental illness is a tall order to fill, and can’t be done overnight. Even the most willing of participants have trouble understanding what’s going on all of the time, just as we ourselves don’t understand. What we all need to keep in mind is that we will not be cured. We cannot make promises that we will ever be off of our treatment plans, because we may not, and giving people vague answers like ‘I’ll reevaluate in a few months’ only gives them a false hope that you will ‘get better’, and leaves you feeling stressed out leading up to that deadline. We learn to live with our illnesses, we master the tools that we are given and we are capable of seeming as though nothing is wrong, but the bottom line is, it’s still there. We will always have bad days. Sure, they will become fewer and farther between, but it will happen, and when it does our loved ones can’t be surprised or shocked by it. We work very hard to manage the person they see, but it’s not always perfect. There are two promises that I believe we should make, one to others and one to ourselves.
To others: I promise to never blame you for my actions or illnesses, and I will not lie to protect your feelings.
To ourselves: I will never minimise my suffering for the sake of others, and I will not cling to those who cannot accept me for the beautifully flawed being that I am.
These are two promises that although seem easy in writing, are harder than we realise. But hey, we all already lead such exceptionally hard lives as it is, so why not add these two logs into the fire?
The bottom line is this: We all deserve our own version of happiness. We need to surround ourselves with people who only contribute to our success, not minimise our good days and exaggerate our bad days. We love incomparably and magically, and there ARE people who are willing to love us in the same ways. Maybe they are also damaged, maybe they aren’t. Our lives are a continuous parade of people who march in and out making promises to us, and even though it’s exhausting to sort through them, it’s important that we do; because maybe that one person who offers us that mask-free existence is hiding in the crowd, waiting to accept you for exactly who you are. Never give up on what you deserve, and never settle because you think you are too damaged to do any better.