If you’re like me, you’re plagued by the fear that the people you’re with think you’re faking it. Whether it’s someone new, someone you’ve been with many times, someone you love, or someone you just met at a bar, there’s always that question: Do they think I’m faking it?
I’m referring to mental illness of course.
If you’re a paraplegic, I don’t think it crosses anyone’s mind that you were just tired of standing up. If you have cancer, I don’t think anyone says, “let me see those x-rays, please.” But mental illness is completely invisible, other than in one’s behavior.
If I can’t get out of bed because of depression, it would be easy for someone to say, as many do, “What you need is some sunshine (or exercise). You need to get up and get moving. Then you’ll feel better.” Would they ever say that to a cancer patient?
If I am consumed with anger and lash out at someone I love, it looks like I’m being a jerk. It looks like bad behavior. In reality, it is a symptom of a brain that won’t cooperate. I know I shouldn’t be angry, but I still am. I still lash out. And then I hate myself for it, convinced that I could “do better” if only I would try harder…try different.
And I know that sometimes my loved ones think the same thing: that I could behave differently if only I would get my act together…quit hiding behind my diagnoses and just make different choices.
A dear friend of mine is financially supported by a family member. Recently, this family member has grown frustrated. He has told her to exercise more, to get outside, to act healthy so as to become healthy. He’s even gone so far as to tell her that his support won’t last forever and she should find a rich man who will enable her as she lays in bed and “refuses to leave the house.” Would this family member ever say this to her if she had cancer? If she had ALS? If she was paralyzed? Obviously, no.
The fact is that it’s easy to worry that people think we’re faking it because, well, they do. Those who have never battled their own brains, understandably, think they know the answer(s) to our problems. When they feel a little sad, it helps to go for a run. When they feel like staying in bed, they are able to overcome that feeling and reap the rewards of getting up and moving.
But that’s like me telling someone with terminal cancer that I understand how they feel because I’ve had the flu. Imagine if I tried to tell someone with cancer how to get better based on my experience with the flu. That would be offensive in every possible sense of the word.
But mental illness is still a mystery. I even went to a talk recently where a psychiatrist talked about how to avoid weight gain when on bi-polar meds, which notoriously cause weight gain. Every ounce of his advice was the exact same advice you would give to someone who just likes to eat: snack on nuts, not donuts; don’t eat after 8; etc.
This was a doctor who treats bi-polar people all day every day. Yet he treated us like we were normal people who just overate, not people who were on medication that makes it nearly impossible to lose weight.
Honestly, I’m not complaining, at least I don’t think I am. I’m just stating the reality that, for those of us with a mental illness, it’s easy to feel like those around us must think we are faking it. Every single day, as I battle my frustrating brain, I wonder what people think. I know that some of them think I should exercise more often. Others think I should pray more. Some think I should fake it till I make it. The vast majority of them have the good sense to keep their opinions to themselves, thankfully. But that doesn’t change the fact that mental illness comes with a healthy dose of insecurity, at least for me.
I guess the takeaway is simply that those of us who struggle in this way need to be bold enough to be honest with people about how we feel no matter how they respond. Maybe they’ll think we are faking it. So what?! Some of them, thankfully, will actually believe what we tell them and will grow a little bit more sensitive to the issues we face on a day to day basis. Either way, some will get it and some won’t. We might as well speak up.