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I Used to Hide the Symptoms of My Mental Illness Out of Shame

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I’ve worked really hard my entire life to be a person who is “presentable” to the world, so much so it has become second nature; I lost touch with who I really was. I became tangled up in my diagnoses, who I wanted to be and who I was by nature. What emerged from this combination was a confusing mess I struggled to navigate.

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Part of the reason it took me so long to get diagnosed was because I was hiding my symptoms. Those I couldn’t hide I didn’t talk about or acknowledge, and no one else did, either.

Looking back, I know now my symptoms of bipolar disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) both began at a young age. It was easy to interpret some of those symptoms as normal behavior because I did not talk about the more extreme experiences — how I struggled to stay afloat at school and my periodic bouts with psychosis. Part of me did not yet understand these things, and for some reason I suspected these issues should not be talked about. Somehow I sensed the stigma attached to mental illness even then, and found myself affected by it.

As an adult, I felt pressures to be a certain person, to be everything for everyone, to not cause trouble, to be successful. I hid the darkest parts of myself, the symptoms that plagued my existence, and everything began to spin out of control.

Why hide?

There are a number of reasons. Shame, for one. I was ashamed of not being perfect and of being sick. A big part of me did not even know I was sick; I thought I was defective, or a failure at navigating life. I was also embarrassed by my symptoms. They caused me to think, speak and act in ways I didn’t have control over, in ways that caused me to wreck my life on a regular basis. I wore that shame and embarrassment at all times, the weight of it crushing me each day.

The stigma associated with mental illness was a huge factor that kept me silent, even though I didn’t always realize it. I was afraid to admit to the world I had these symptoms. I struggled, so I created and tried to play the role I’d cast for myself. But there was no willing away, no shedding my illnesses that I’d been avoiding for my entire life.

One of the ways I hid my bipolar disorder was through social withdrawal. No one knew I was staying up nights at a time, writing maniacally, exercising or shopping online, and then sleeping for days on end, because I avoided the company of others. No one knew about the shopping sprees at the mall until after the fact, and it was seen as some personal flaw rather than a symptom of a disease. No one saw the mood shifts, because I hid who I was from the world and only allowed them to see what I wanted them to see. I kept a carefully controlled image. Whether some saw through it or not, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to believe I could change myself, that I could make these symptoms disappear. This only made things worse.

I hid ADHD through anxiety and compulsions. I am, by nature, very disorganized. I counter this by being obsessive about it. I’d go on huge cleaning sprees, but inevitably, things always ended up a cluttered mess. This might not sound like a big deal, but it affected every area of my life. It affected my self-esteem: “I can’t do anything right. I can’t even stay organized.” It affected my relationships: I never allowed anyone to visit without scheduling with me first, allowing me time to clean and organize. No spontaneous drop-by’s allowed. The idea that someone could knock on my door and me not expect it caused me great anxiety. It affected my time: I spent countless hours focused on cleaning and organizing, to no avail. Things always ended up a mess again. It affected my money: I’d buy lots of tools to help with cleaning and organizing, only to fail to use them. This symptom of ADHD has been painful for me. But I didn’t talk about it. I went to great lengths to hide it, much like my bipolar disorder, to the point of total isolation.

I hid my inattention and troubles with focus by overcompensating. I would stay up all night studying, memorizing texts so that I could make good grades. I didn’t want to say I wasn’t processing lectures at school. I just wanted to be like everyone else.

I made my life much more complicated than it had to be by trying to hide who I was. I suffered under the burden of stigma for my entire life, which is why I am passionate about making it obsolete. We don’t need to stay silent; we don’t need to hide. We need to talk about mental illness.

I have finally reached a point in my life where I am no longer afraid to talk about my illnesses. Do I still feel embarrassment and shame? I’d be lying if I answered with a definitive “no.” The truth is, I do still feel some negative emotions with regard to sharing, but it gets easier. I’ll probably always have mixed feelings because I am a private person and sharing is hard, but I want to show others they aren’t alone, and I want the world to see that mental illness is real and it hurts every bit as much as “physical” illness (I believe mental illness is physical, too). I don’t want others to feel they have to hide like I did.

So this is me. I am disorganized. I have trouble concentrating. I sometimes concentrate on things too much. I have mood cycles. I am impulsive. I sometimes spend too much money or make poor decisions in the moment. I experience psychosis at times, when my mood is too high or too low. I struggle with anxiety and panic. I don’t hide my struggles anymore. I do my part to try to lessen them. I don’t fight against myself anymore. I believe these things can get better and my symptoms do not paint the entire portrait of who I am, but they are a part of me and I have come to accept that.

But I am not my struggles. I am more. I am a person. I am a person who struggles, yes, but I am a person who loves, who writes, who creates. I am a writer, an artist, a wife, a pet parent. I am learning to let go of fear, to not be ashamed of who I am. It is a process.

But I am on my way.

Originally published: June 21, 2016
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