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I've Spent Years Hiding My Mental Illness and Making People Think I'm 'High-Functioning'


I can’t do “normal” anymore. I tried. Seriously. I tried and tried again and tried one more time and it’s just not going to work for me. Being “abnormal” was great when I was younger, but now people depend on me. I have to do adult things, professional things, the things that are expected from women with college degrees, a job and a family. I need to take the kids to school, be on time and be ready to work at my Monday through Friday job, make healthy nutritious meals, maintain relationships with friends, keep up with the laundry so the uniforms are clean and ready for the next event, exercise, pay the bills, you know — all the normal things people do every day with seemingly little effort. I can’t do it anymore.

To look at me, you would probably think, “There’s a regular mom, doing mom stuff, making it happen at work and at home, and keeping it together.” You would be wrong. I have spent the last 13 years pretending to be a woman who can juggle it all, carry the weight, bounce back from adversity and generally go with the flow when life gets turned upside down. But it’s all a charade, perhaps an illusion. Over time, I have carefully crafted my show. With precise calculation and a bit of misdirection, I have convinced most everyone I know that I am just like them. They are all under my spell and totally believe what they see and hear. I am the grand illusionist. I use my knowledge and wit to subconsciously control the audience. The whole act is so entertaining and fun that no one ever notices the multi-colored scarves stuffed in my sleeve or the sleight of hand move I do while they stare at a magical puff of smoke. I have become so skilled at the art of illusion, so masterful in my on-stage persona, that sometimes I too get caught up in the levity and forget that black magic fuels my show. But it’s always there. It lingers behind the curtain and taunts me, relishing the moment I remember this is all one big trick.

I thought it was pretty clever, but if that illusion metaphor confused you, let me be more blunt. I am a faker. I pretend to be strong and capable of handling most anything thrown my way. My teachers, my family, the people I work with all believe they know me. They have bought into my story of hope and ability so fully that they cannot see the dark, looming shadow that’s always standing right next to me. And that shadow, the black magic, has a tighter hold on me than I want to believe. I try to ignore it and hope it disappears but it never stays gone for too long. When I least expect it, the shadow re-appears and slowly dismantles my life.

What is this ominous shadow wreaking havoc on me? It’s a mental illness, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), accompanied by seasonal affective disorder and the occasional anxiety-induced episode of major depression to be exact. While that may not seem like a big confession or a situation serious enough to make me reject a “normal” life, I assure you, it is. For me, it’s the equivalent of unleashing the monster of judgment and insecurity and fear. It’s standing on stage in your underwear, defenseless and vulnerable as people in the audience whisper and stare. It’s admitting that you have a problem.

For years I have kept my struggles very private. I talked to my mental health provider on a regular basis but no one else — not my parents, sister, friends or spouse! Why? I was afraid.

Afraid they would think less of me.

Afraid it would mean I wasn’t smart or capable.

Afraid I couldn’t do my job or be a good mom.

Afraid I was weak and to be pitied.

Afraid no man could handle that drama.

I would be labeled “crazy.”

Afraid people would talk about me.

Showing your flaws to the world is hard. It takes real courage to stand in front of others and say, “This is me. This is how I was made. Take me as I am.” I would love to do that. I tell others who are struggling to do just that, knowing I’m a total hypocrite for suggesting action. But after a really, really rough year, I know I can’t survive in isolation. I need support. I need help. I have to say it out loud.

So, here’s my baby step.

Dear Everyone,

I have a mental health disorder. The wires in my brain don’t work like yours and that makes me less able to successfully handle all the things at the same time. I get overwhelmed and that causes me to freeze. If I take care of myself like I am supposed to, I am happy and productive. If I don’t, I will hide in a deep, dark hole until something forces me out.

To avoid future episodes of existing in dark spaces, until further notice, I am no longer doing “normal.” I will forge my own way with a style and cadence that contributes to my success and ergo, the success of my family. Should you have any questions, please hold onto them for a while as I’m still figuring out how this works.

Sincerely,
Ashley

Unsplash photo via Lane Jackman