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What Remains Hidden When You Have Mental Illness

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I have thought about death more often than I believe the average person does. I do not claim to know the thoughts of an ordinary person, but I am not an ordinary person. Most say that ordinary cannot be defined, that “normal” is just a word, and most people don’t fit it. What one might think is “normal” is another person’s “insane.” Either way, I’ve always known that something in my mind is broken or perhaps shifted at a different angle. I don’t think about death in the way of contemplating my existence, though I do have my fair share of existential crises. I have accepted that death is a part of life: an avoidable cost, the true price of living. Everything and everyone has an end. The gag is that none of us know when to pay our toll.

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Death, or the thought of it, has been my constant companion for many years. Really, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been either passively suicidal or actively suicidal. The movement of the stars can be tracked as well as the cycles of the moon: the phase of my suicidality cannot. Every night I go to sleep, my brain resets however it feels. When my alarm clock wakes me, the entire day is a gamble from the moment I sit up in bed. Some days, I snooze my alarm and don’t get out of bed. I call out of work and promise to try again tomorrow. Other days, I wake up, put on my happy face, and do what I need to do. Either scenario is draining, both mentally and physically.

See, most days, I can function. To exist on autopilot in order to keep my job and maintain a place in this world. The keyword here is function, as a lot of the time, I’m not truly living. When I’m passively suicidal, not fully in a depressive episode, or manic, I can push through. I am able to put on the facade that I am a happy, well-adjusted person. Many people in my life see me as a bubbly, chill girl, a competent human being. It is an image I have carefully crafted over the years, and it takes a lot of energy to uphold. Sadly, I don’t do it for myself; I do it to make everyone else comfortable.

You see, I know me at my worst. There are no illusions when I’m alone, no characters protecting me from what haunts me. But I live in a world where if you have illnesses that one cannot see, they basically don’t exist. When people out in the world see me, they don’t see the things I’ve been through; they aren’t aware of how many medications it takes to balance my existence or how many times I’ve been so close to ending my life. My coworkers, family, and acquaintances don’t know the harm I’ve done to my body. Truthfully, in my experience, I know they don’t want to know those things. Hard truths, trauma, and the true grit of depression make people uncomfortable. The words bipolar and borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to have the same effect.

Stigmatization is the reason I do what I do. It is the reason I have my breakdowns behind closed doors, why I don’t leave my pill bottles lying around, and why I spend my days pretending. We’ve all seen those psychological thrillers or true crime shows, the ones that paint all women with BPD like unhinged, obsessive murderers. Some do the same with bipolar disorder, but I’ve noticed that less often. Seeing your disorder depicted in such a way can crush your spirit. It often makes me question what I’m truly capable of, what others would think I’m capable of if they knew the truth. Would they walk on eggshells around me? Would they view me as employable? I could ask so many other questions, yet I know the answers would never be spoken out loud.

No one wants to admit their internal biases, whether they are aware of them or not. So I hide the worst parts of me, the parts I know would put other people on edge. As part of my existence, I am already Black, and I work hard enough not to be labeled an “Angry Black Woman.” If I behaved in the way, my mind urges me to sometimes, all that I have would disappear. If I scream, cry, and cuss the way I want to when my anxiety is too high. Or if I made every intrusive thought I ever have known to all. Even if I acted on my impulses when feeling an immense amount of irrational anger, I would be alone. Being mentally ill wouldn’t excuse any of that behavior, but it would explain some. However, that is not enough for the everyday world. Bridges become burned, and most won’t be willing to walk over the coals to mend what has been destroyed.

That is my reality. I am toeing the line between “sane” and “insane,” between stable and suicidal. Between someone to be around and someone to altogether avoid. It is exhausting. How can I be myself when I’m split between two realities? The last thing I wanted for my life was to be “crazy.” Forgive me; I know most don’t like that word, but I reclaim it for myself.

Since I don’t want to be the way I am, I don’t want other people to know either. It is a kind of vulnerability I am not afforded in this society. I’m not certain I want such vulnerability. But does anyone? We save our truest selves for the ones we love, and even that level of openness can be difficult. I’ve been with my husband for almost nine years now, and even he hasn’t seen the worst I can be. Sure, he’s seen me through suicidal episodes and hospital stays. He’s been there while I cried about nothing, and I’ve shared a majority of my trauma with him. He knows me as well as I can let someone know me. Yet, sometimes, I feel like no one really knows me at all. Have I ever truly let down my walls, or am I always just a little bit guarded?

I suppose all of this is to say that mental illness is complicated. While many people have some version or another, it tends to be a solitary experience. When we walk through the world knowing that a stigma hangs over our head the moment we share our truths, we find it easier to be alone. However, loneliness is pervasive and dangerous. Isolation of our own making could be our end. But isolation from the world is a living death that I do not wish on anyone.

Getty image by LUMEZIA

Originally published: March 24, 2022
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