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No, You Are Not 'Faking' Your Mental Illness

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“I can’t have one good day without immediately believing I’ve been faking it forever,” says Aether C.

This quote from The Mighty story, “Five Ways People Experience Internalized Mental Health Stigma” lingers in my mind. One of the risks that comes with momentary feelings of happiness is that they can invalidate everything we’ve been through up until now.

“I’m a con artist,” I tell myself. I’m feigning a mental illness to “seek attention,” “get out of” whatever it is I don’t want to do, or deceivingly seek belonging in a community like The Mighty.

But this is nonsense.

The irony is such self-recriminating vicious thought cycles are in themselves evidence of mental illness.

I wonder if those like me, with “high functioning” mental disorders are more prone to this way of thinking? It is rare I take time off work due to my mental health. It is unusual for me to pull out of engagements due to not feeling able to cope. Right now, I am going through a difficult patch, yet I imagine most people would be none the wiser. And through this seemingly unaffected way of living, I don’t only hide my illness from others; I hide it from myself. And that makes it harder for me to convince myself I have a problem at all.

Let’s take an example. I am feeling low and considering whether or not I should go to a pre-arranged meeting with friends. If I don’t, it confirms I’m just an attention seeker, using my no-show as a way to garner sympathy. If I do, it confirms I’m fine and should shut up about a problem that doesn’t exist. If, after making my decision, I find myself feeling better as the evening goes on, this doesn’t suggest it was the right call to make. It only confirms I — to return to the worries of Aether C. — “have been faking it.”

Moments of happiness can feel like a trap. “If this is so easy, then what has been your problem for the past 20 years?” I taunt myself. Even worse, “If it’s as easy as this to feel ‘happy,’ then what a waste the past two decades of your life has been!”

Reading about someone else’s mental health struggles can sometimes provide little in the way of solace. “Well here is someone who has real problems,” I think to myself. Far from making me feel like I’m not alone, my brain contorts what is intended as a message of hope, into an attack.

I find myself rebutting my own mental struggles when I’m writing articles just like this one. “What better form of ‘attention seeking’ than to get a story featured in a far-reaching publication like The Mighty?”

Since I started my medication I have found I no longer have what I call “acute worries” where my mind will “worry churn” around a singular point for days and days on end. I’m incredibly thankful for that. However, I’ve also noticed that as a result, my attempts to invalidate my own mental health problems have picked up pace. I find that in the absence of something to worry about, my brain makes darn sure it has something to worry about. It’s a bit like a starved vacuum cleaner desperately seeking even the smallest fragments of dust and dirt to gobble up. And ironically (I find that mental health is never short on irony), this “self-gaslighting” becomes something of a “worry churn” in itself.

It is only in the past two or three years that I’ve decided to talk and write openly about my mental illness. But by doing this, do I run the risk of compelling myself to “act the part” of a mentally ill person — if to no one else, then at least to myself?

Stepping back for a moment, I realize everything I have described is just part and parcel of being mentally unwell — a hyper self-awareness which (again) ironically clouds my own self-judgment. I am well aware that, following this brief moment of realization, I will probably descend back into the vicious cycle of self-recrimination. I will continue taking the self-blame I describe in “Your Mental Illness Is Not Your Fault” to the next level by accusing myself of not even having a mental illness in the first place.

Yet perhaps, in breaking down these negative thought patterns, there is the potential for me to at least understand what is going on. Even if the path to resolving the issue remains uncertain, acknowledging and calling out these negative thought spirals can be empowering in itself.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, in the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international crisis helplines can be found at Befrienders Worldwide.

You can follow Will Sadler on Twitter @wsadlertweets

Unsplash image by Catalin Pop

Originally published: March 13, 2022
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