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Mental Illness Doesn't Always Have a 'Look'


“Brittany appeared well dressed and with good hygiene.”

I remember reading this when I received a copy of a mental health intake exam I took and it haunted me. As if the fact that I could get dressed that morning mitigated the fact that I spend nearly 18 hours a day worrying about things. As if appearance on the outside could possibly show what was going on inside my head. It’s not the doctor’s fault, she is only a student and only learning. In fact, we are all learning a lot about mental illness together as begin to start talking about these things. But what bothered me is it perpetuates this stigma that mental illness can be seen with the naked eye. Admittedly, in many cases when the days are bad, it’s hard to get ready and for some people that is a cornerstone of their illness. But for others, myself including, through the naked eye you would never tell what’s happening underneath.

You see, I struggle with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that comes and goes as it pleases throughout all hours of the day and night — sometimes it stays for weeks. Over the past few years, what I have learned is good habits are my best friend in terms of trying to cope with my thoughts. Thus, each night I go through the same routine to try and remind my body that soon, it will be time to sleep. That routine is a cup of tea, a good skin care regime, a face mask (sometimes two if I’m feeling a little wound up). If I don’t force myself through that entire night-time process, what I find is that my mind and body forget to shut off. It’s as if they don’t realize that it’s nearly 2:23am and I must be awake at 6:30am.

Therefore, most days, I have good skin and I wear makeup, and my hair and teeth are brushed so you can’t possibly know I’ve been up most of the night thinking:

If I fall asleep right this minute, I will get 2 hours and 46 minutes of sleep.

Did I offend him when I said that I didn’t want to go to that show?

Shoot, I’m going to be so tired tomorrow.

These are all the thoughts I have thought time and time again, games I play as I try and fall asleep. See, when you say, “You look great this morning.” I get a sense of guilt because I am not great, in fact, I spent about an hour making sure my skin looked rested and my eyes weren’t puffy. This is what anxiety looks like. It’s not necessarily always me on the bathroom floor, trying to catch my breath – though sometimes it looks like that too. Sometimes anxiety looks like a girl with good clothes and her hair done. So when you immediately assume that mental illness is synonymous with poor hygiene or a certain “look,” remember each night I put a face mask on and still keep myself up at night.

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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns