What It's Like to Have a Great 'Poker Face' as Someone With Mental Illness

My internal struggles went untreated, undiagnosed and unnoticed for six years. My family, friends, teachers and everyone else in my life saw a mentally stable, upstanding, poster child for perfection, when in reality, I was cracking and tearing at the seams. I was associated with my goodness, the lack of trouble I got into and the absence of any kind of drugs or alcohol, when behind the scenes, I was engaging in some pretty destructive behaviors, including drinking and smoking.

When I opened up about everything I had gone through in my life, including my struggles and (at the time) current active suicidal ideation, the person I was venting to and asking for help responded “you hid it very well.” Which was true, I rarely blame people for not noticing it all because I do put up a great mask, one that is almost impossible to detect.

My mask is perfect — never once has it been discovered without me deliberately exposing it. But it comes with a lot of downsides. Now that I have started treatment and my struggles are out in the open, it’s easy for people to think that I am getting better when I’m actually getting much worse. It also gets harder and harder to be truthful with people about anything.

One of the most heartbreaking moments of my recovery was when I heard that someone very close to me had referred to me as the “former good kid,” or something along those lines. My reputation was essentially my mask, so when I removed it, I lost my reputation and was now labeled a “bad kid” for the things I did. It makes me want to cry even just thinking about it, that the things I felt like I had to do to cope — to survive — were being blamed on me all because my mask had made me look like something else.

Nowadays, do I still hide behind my mask? Absolutely, no doubt. But I don’t wear it all the time anymore — I definitely have more moments of vulnerability than before. My mask will most likely be a part of me for the rest of my life and there will be times when I wear my mask more often than not, but there will also be times when I do let people see the real me. It hurts me to have to rebuild my reputation with some people, where before I was an awesome example of a good kid, but now I’m either the problem child or the sick kid, defined by a diagnosis and medication regiment.

To have a good poker face is a blessing in the short-term since people don’t have to worry about me and I can protect myself, but terrible in the long run. Recognizing this is the first step in taking the mask off more, but it’s more difficult than people make it seem to be vulnerable after doing it once and being met with criticism and disappointment. My mask is part of me, as much as I may enjoy or despise the fact. The question now is when do I put it on and when do I let people see and know when I’m struggling?

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Getty image via MDBrockmann

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Bipolar Disorder

sad woman sit on bed

When You're Sitting in the Aftermath of a Bipolar Episode

I didn’t know I was going through it until I was out of it. I didn’t see the signs. I didn’t listen to anyone (which in and of itself can be a sign). I thought I was doing really well. I thought I was successful and happy. Until it all crashed down. That’s the thing [...]
super mario hat lying on pavement in road abandoned

How My Bipolar Mania Is Like a Video Game Power-Up

As a 19-year-old obsessed with video game culture and having been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder I, I desperately tried to make sense of these severe symptoms I had been experiencing. The first thought in my mind, of course, was how to relate my mental health to my childhood growing up on video games — a great [...]
close up of woman holding pen for man to sign contract

Dear Bipolar Disorder: This Is What We Need to Agree On

Dear bipolar disorder, We’ve had a relationship for decades now, though it’s one I never chose. To tell the truth, I can’t even remember when we met. Gradually, you just moved in. So I guess we’re stuck as roommates for the rest of my life. You can’t break your lease and I can’t move out. That being [...]

When Do I Start Therapy for My Child Struggling With Mental Health?

When did you know it was time for Sam to see a therapist? I get this question a lot. If you read Sam’s Story, my first step was to ask his pediatrician and get a recommendation. Lack of care options and provider availability can be an issue, but that’s a topic for another day! Starting Sam [...]