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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

How will my friends react to my mental illness?

I wage a constant battle with myself. It all revolves around what my friends will think of me. Should I hide my mental illness from my friends to avoid embarrassment? Or do I drop the mask and allow friends to see me acting abnormally, knowing that some people will be scared and judge me harshly?

Having a mental illness is no fun, but it’s made all the worse by the stigma which surrounds it. We can’t help but be affected by society’s expectations. Everyone cares what other people think of them. The fact is that society judges those with mental illness negatively. 

Often people think that those with mental illness are responsible for their condition. The idea is that those with mental illness are somehow in control of the course of their illness and can choose whether or not to succumb to it. Often it is thought that those that have mental health problems are weak in some way. Perhaps other people suffer from the same problems in life but are of strong enough mind to overcome their difficulties. On this view, whether or not you suffer from a mental illness is all about choice.

Some people may go a step further and think that mental illness doesn’t even exist. You can’t see a mental illness, only observe behaviour. The behaviour can seem strange and scary. It is easier to believe that someone is just ‘crazy’ (a dehumanising word, setting someone apart from yourself and others) rather than imagine that person to be just like you or me but in intense mental pain. Some may just think that the person is behaving this way because they have let themselves go rather than actually suffering from a medical condition. 

These kinds of thoughts often lead people to the belief that those with mental health problems are a drain on the state. They read about ‘benefit scroungers’ in the newspapers and believe that someone with a mental illness is unworthy of help. At best, they are weak and lazy. At worst, they are faking it for monetary gain. Either way they see you as a drain on ‘the taxpayer’.

I worry that my friends will be thinking these kinds of things about me when I talk about my mental illness. I don’t think most of them will think I am making it up, but perhaps they think I am lazy and a drain on the state. I claim disability living allowance but I don’t tell many people that. I am sure they can guess though. Maybe they look at me buy new things or go on holiday and resent me for it. Who knows what kinds of things people are thinking when they look at me. I shouldn’t care. Mental illness is not about weakness or choice. I should just shrug it off. They are the ones with the problem with their ignorant views. I shouldn’t care, but I do.

I try to navigate the tricky path with how to behave around other people so as to minimise these kinds of negative judgements. I want to be open and show people what my mental illness really is all about. I want to tell people about the way that I feel and why I end up behaving as I do. Most of my friends know that I have a mental illness. However, I always end up trying to hide the behaviours associated with it to avoid people thinking I am scary or weird. If I am depressed, I act cheery. If I am anxious, I act much more calmly that I feel. If I am manic, I try exceptionally hard to quash down my desires to pace around and laugh wildly.

I have ended up in the strange situation of being open in what I say about my mental illness but acting as if nothing is wrong. Of course, in doing all this behaviour modification, people are going to have a hard time believing that I am really ill. I may have saved face but people are going to wonder why I can’t work when I seem capable enough in front of them. 

I know that other people with mental health problems must feel the same way. As well as coping with the illness, we have to deal with the stigma surrounding it. This makes it hard to be completely honest and open with people. However, how are people ever going to understand mental health problems if we all keep quiet about it? It is a tough dilemma because when we are open, we sometimes do get judged negatively by people we think of as friends. We can only hope that real friends will at least try and be compassionate, even if they don’t really understand mental illness. 

6 comments:

  1. As I was reading your blog the similarities between our situations hit me.
    I too put try act 'normally' whilst inside I fight my daily battle against depression and anxiety. I tell people about my condition, but I don't think anyone has seen the real me. I guess, like you, I am scared of the consequences. I think a combination of stigma and fear stops me.
    Thank you for helping me feel a little less alone x

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  2. Thank you for reading. It is nice to feel a bit less alone sometimes. Reading about other people's experiences helps me too. I think a lot of people hide much of who they are, even when they don't have mental health problems. But it is even harder for those who do. x

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  3. I appreciate reading this blog post, but I have a slightly different perspective. Most of the time, I haven't the energy or means to misrepresent what's happening to me. I can't choose to behave differently so I end up choosing to be alone. Which exacerbates my sadness, loneliness, fear, and hopelessness. What I need most are friends to embrace me, check on me, show me they care. They all know I suffer; I've used multiple forums to explain the intricacies of my illness, cite research, start open and frank discussions about mental health. Yet they still don't understand that I need them to reach out to me without me having to convince them over and over again that I really am sick. In the last year, I've all but shut down every aspect of the bubbly, fun, social person I used to be. Seems either nobody has noticed, or maybe they are repulsed by my weakness or whatever. Or maybe they're pissed because they think I just don't invite them to do fun things anymore. I'm basically curled up on the floor sobbing all the time and if I don't scream directly to people repeatedly asking for help, they just go on with their lives. Out of sight, out of mind, at least in my community. I don't have what other people need in order to respect my illness. God, I wish I had cancer or something other than this.

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    1. Thanks for reading and for sharing your perspective. I can relate to choosing to be alone sometimes and also to feeling like I have lost part of who I used to be. I am sorry that you have had some bad experiences with friends who need convincing. Friends should be there for each other. It sounds like you are having a really tough time. People sometimes don't respond because they are overwhelmed and don't know how to behave. There are many other possible reasons though so it is hard to guess. It does sometimes feel like it would be easier to have a physical illness instead. People are definitely more responsive to that. I hope things improve for you soon.

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  4. I have dealt with anxiety and depression since I was a young child but only diagnosed 15 years ago (I'm 41). For quite a long time I worried about what people would think of my illnesses and tried to hide them. Now I feel much different about it all. I don't hide the depression or anxiety and I try to promote awareness wherever and whenever I can. It isn't easy and many people (even people I'm close to) just don't get it (or they don't WANT to) but I fight on. Maybe one day we will live in a world that understands and is sympathetic. That's ny sincere hope. All we can do is try to make it better. Good luck!

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    1. Thanks for reading and your thoughts. It is great that you can be open about things to raise awareness, although not so great that some people still don't understand. Hopefully things will improve in the future. Fingers crossed!

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