Within the past few days, I have run into people I have not seen in a while and was complemented on how “great” I look. The truth is that I do not feel great, and my anxiety is quite high as I am adjusting some of my medications. I simply smiled and said, “Thank you” and went on with my day.
Because really, does anyone want to hear anything other than “thank you?” I could have said, “Thanks so much but my outside does not match my inside right now. I am obsessively thinking about what to make for dinner and I’m frustrated and annoyed.” Who wants to hear that?
The big buzz word online regarding certain illnesses is “invisible.” I have used this word to describe all three of my own mental illnesses and have come to like and accept using it as a descriptor. For some, labeling illness as “invisible” diminishes the actual experience; for others, it categorizes illnesses that are not apparent to the naked eye. When my daughter describes a growing pain, I cannot see it but I know it is real. There is no cast or band aid to signify the pain, but the hurt and struggle is real and present.
It’s a fine line between how I appear to others right now and how I actually feel inside. Even if you noticed my shaking hands, you may not jump to asking, “Why are your hands shaking so much?” When only mildly depressed, I can pull off showering and wearing makeup, and when anxious I am an expert at keeping my inner turmoil to myself and only a few close people. My symptoms of borderline personality disorder are evident to my group therapist and group members and my individual therapist, but are probably not that apparent to a fair amount of my friends and family.
Over the years, I have become quite sly at hiding what I do not want others to know. I did not want to reveal my true self as I was terrified of the consequences (namely, abandonment). Now I am more open but I still continue to hide. It may be in a different way than I used to, but there is still an aspect of being mentally ill that I do not want exposed.
There are certain experiences we go through that we keep to ourselves in order to protect ourselves and those we care about. People can only handle so much and sharing one’s experiences with mental illness can be scarring and even traumatizing to the listener. I always take that into consideration when I am discussing my illnesses with others. I have become better at sharing more with my husband, therapists, and other family and friends, and I always measure the appropriateness of what I wish to share.
But there does need to be more words spoken about “invisible” illnesses. If we are going to continue to call mental illness “invisible” perhaps we can try harder to find the words to describe our experiences: talk about it, write about it, and read about it. This will help to more clearly define what “invisible” really means in the context of mental illness. Just because you cannot concretely see something does not mean it is not there.
Mental illness is very real and the more words we have to describe and define it, the more tangible it becomes. This can help bring about greater understanding of what is so often misunderstood.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.