Today, I am a version of “normal.”
I have all my hair, all my limbs, and all of my communication skills. I smile. I walk. I laugh. I dance at the party. I cheer at the game. I raise my glass to the toast. I look alive. Yet, unknown to almost everyone, this is an illusion – something I create to keep my invisible illness even more hidden, a secret.
After an encounter with a coach back in my high school soccer playing days, I learned to harbor my illness deep inside of me as much as possible. His exact words when I attempted to reveal my struggle with bipolar disorder were this: “But, you look fine.”
From then on, I was convinced the world held no empathy for invisible illnesses. How could they? There was no cast to sign, no wheelchair to push, no doors to hold open because my arms were occupied with crutches. No. There was nothing to see. So, therefore there must be nothing wrong.
As I continued to struggle in silence from my friends, I pushed the symptoms deeper into the prisons of my mind, making sure I didn’t make a scene. I tried my best to be someone else’s version of normal. It worked, in that sense. Outsiders saw a regular, happy person living her life. But they didn’t see the other side. Behind my eyes, inside my brain, I was dying with all of my pain and all of my secrets.
I felt embarrassed when I had to tell someone I was struggling, and humiliated when they looked at me like I was making it up. I began to belittle my own struggle. It wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be. This led to a lot of self-loathing, confusion, and anger. I was furious with my mind for not being able to work “right,” as if I had even the slightest bit of control over that in the first place.
It was the worst when I’d go to my friends’ weddings or see old teammates and have to describe my life over the past few years. They had successfully run their races. They had jobs, careers, college degrees, and tales of adventure. What did I have to show? I had been battling in a mental war that had an unparalleled horror to anything I had ever experienced. How do you say things like that in small chit-chat? The depths my heart had reached seemed to surpass anything anyone else would have wanted to hear, never mind understand. So I lied. I pretended my life was like theirs. But, I hated feeling like I had to hide.
After much trial and error, I found a psychiatrist who clicked with me. He brought me to a place I hadn’t been since I’d gotten sick. And, he made me realize something I had been fighting against for a long time.
It is OK to struggle. And, it is OK to tell people.
He said, “Elissa, not everyone can understand your illness right away. But, if you tell someone about how that illness affects you deep into your core, that it moves your being into hell and back, and they still aren’t willing to try to understand…they aren’t worth having in your life. The people who matter, the ones worth holding onto, will value you over something they don’t understand. They will accept you.”
I didn’t believe this, not at first.
Ever since I was told I “looked fine” when I was struggling with the very thought of trying to stay alive, I had come to the false assumption that everyone felt that way – that no one wanted to understand.
One day after my psychiatrist told me the truth, I decided to test it out. I told my friend I had something hard to say, and I told her about my bipolar disorder. Her response was this: “I have depression and I suffer in silence, too.”
This idea still leaves me in a saddened awe –so many people struggle with an invisible illness, and yet they hide it from the world. Whether it is a brain injury, a mental illness, a disability, a chronic illness or an emotional turmoil, people try to hide it. But, the thing about burying something like that so deep down is it eats at you until it feels like you have no hope.
I believe the biggest mistakes in this world come from the words we don’t say and the words we refuse to hear. Perhaps we assume we are wrong to feel how we feel. Perhaps we fear no one will hear us if we do speak about it. Or perhaps we are afraid of what we will hear after we share our struggle – or maybe that we might hear nothing at all — silence, confirming the dread of isolation. But remaining quiet in your struggle will undoubtedly leave you feeling alone.
Even though it is hard, it helps to share you struggle. Say something. Say something and be heard. You are not alone. The world is not as cruel of a place as it seems. You never know who needs to hear your story to get through their own.
As I have begun to heal, I have also begun to share my story, and I cannot emphasize enough how healing it is.
If there is one thing I could say to people with invisible illnesses, it is this:
To those of you that want the courage to set yourself free, I dare you to speak.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.