Why People Are Surprised When I Tell Them I Have a Mental Illness
The most common responses I get when I begin to explain my story to someone new are, “I had no idea” or “I would have never guessed.” I don’t think this is uncommon for other individuals suffering with mental illness.
Mental illness is essentially invisible. If you have a broken bone, you wear a cast. If you have the flu, you are likely sniffling and coughing. With mental illness, unless you have an animated thought bubble following you around, there is usually nothing to see. Sure, there could be isolation, shyness etc. noticed within the individual, but you need to personally interact with them to notice these things.
Even if these symptoms are present, they are not always a sign of mental illness. There is no direct cue that indicates someone has a mental illness, as a cast relates to a broken bone. When you see a cast, you know to ensure not to move the cast or touch the person and cause them pain. There is a visual cue saying, “Hey, this person is going through something difficult.” The reality though, is everyone is going through something.
Not only is mental illness invisible but from my experience, some people with anxiety or PTSD are able to “hide” symptoms. This brings me to the title of this article. I have been told many times after telling my story, “I would have never guessed.” Unless the story is told and the person suffering speaks about what they are experiencing, they can suffer in silence.
Many people suffer in silence for years. I can say I had about eight months before I asked for help with my suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, those eight months only contained thoughts. We need to encourage people to speak up about what they are going through because you truly never know.
When you first meet me, I may be a little shy and timid. I am hesitant to talk about myself but otherwise, I am known to be “well spoken.” Over the years of participating in my organization Tee Up For Mental Health, I have spoken to crowds about my mental illness. I have gained a confidence I never had before and in interacting with me now, you will notice this if you have not seen me in a few years. This certainly was not always the case.
I was the teenage girl who hid behind my mom when she introduced me to new people. I had very few friends, as I rarely left the house. I attended high school but what none of my peers knew was that I would leave each class 10 minutes early. This was to avoid too crowded hallways as the bell rang. I avoided school events and went to class and came home to my room. At this time, I was extremely soft spoken and would often become very tense thanks to my anxiety. I did everything I could to hide what was going on. To everyone around me, I was quiet.
Even after my suicide attempt and beginning extensive treatment, I completed high school. Yes, I took most of my classes individually in the quietness of my guidance counselors office. Yes, I took separate entrances and exits from the school at the beginning and end of each day to avoid the crowds. Yes, between my mom, my guidance counselor and myself, my illness was well known.
To my peers, I avoided social events and was simply absent. I rarely spoke to anyone outside of my very small circle of friends and many of them didn’t know what was truly going on. Until my graduating year, I rarely attended classes with other students. Still, I was able to complete high school and was very grateful for the accommodations given to me to make this possible.
It was a difficult decision for me to apply to colleges, as I was terrified of attending yet a larger campus. I vastly researched online or “distance” programs that I could complete from home. After weeks of thought, conversations and research, I decided I needed to face my fears. I knew my anxiety could not affect my education and ultimately my future, as I had been letting it do for so long. I decided to take the chance and at least apply to colleges close to home. I knew though at this point, I could still back out. And please don’t think I didn’t think about rejecting all my acceptance letters because I thought about it many times.
I am so thankful for the year I took off in between high school and college. That year not only gave me time to better prepare myself for college, but it “gave” me Tee Up For Mental Health. In the year I took to work, I also began the non-profit organization that changed my life.
I went into college anxious but I had spent so much time preparing. I knew I was able to do it, no matter how difficult it might be. For the first time behind my anxiety was a purpose — a motivation. I knew I was more than my anxiety and I knew I could beat this. All this came from finding my passion.
So when I say many people are surprised when I tell them about my experience with mental illness, it is simply because I have learned and grown. I definitely have my off days where you could probably say, “That girl has anxiety” before being 3 feet away from me.
Many days, I am a little quieter than most but there is no visual cue. Even when I was at my worst, unless you were observative/curious enough to notice the cuts on my forearms, again no visual cues. Some days, I used to think “it would be so much easier if I could just stop explaining it. I wish people just knew.”
These days came most often when I was working in customer service and someone would be screaming at me for goodness knows what. Yes, they were likely having a bad day but would they be treating me this way in front of this many people if they knew? Maybe not. But possibly it would cause a second thought. You wouldn’t yell at someone wearing a leg cast for not walking fast enough. Why yell at someone with severe anxiety for not being able to manage 20 customers at a time? Stop and think what may be behind the body you are yelling at and what that person’s mind may be enduring.
So while my mental illness shows sometimes, unless you catch me in those triggering situations you could never know.
I successfully graduated high school as well as college. I have accomplished things people thought I never would. Not every individual suffering shows symptoms. They may be getting up each day, going to work and be “perfectly fine.” You don’t know what’s going on past that unless they confide in you.
Try to be nice to the people around you and even people you meet one time because you never know what they’re going through. You would be surprised that they’re suffering from the condition they’re dealing with.
Stay safe and strong,
A version of this story was previously published at Tee Up For Mental Health.
Getty Images: unomat