I Hide My Mental Illness

Being mentally ill means that I am more likely to be shot by police. I am more likely to be raped or assaulted. I am more likely to be institutionalized, to be condemned as an unfit parent, to be denied employment or fired.

Jan 17, 2012 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

At least once a week, there’s a story about someone with my diagnosis in the news being shot by police. Either it’s a new story, a new shooting, or it’s a story about the outcome of an earlier shooting; usually an internal investigation confirming it was justified, or a followup on how mental health services haven’t improved at all since the shooting1.

I’ve been seeing stories like this my entire life, since long before I knew I was mentally ill, but they, along with other depictions of mental illness in pop culture2, took on new meaning after I found out I was crazy. Looking at those stories is a reminder of what could happen to me if I set a toe out of line. If, in other words, I “act crazy.”

Like a lot of people with mental illness, I spend a lot of time fronting. It’s really important to me to not appear crazy, to fit in, to seem normal, to do the things “normal people” do, to blend in. It’s a form of assimilation for safety, but something deeper than that, where hiding my own identity for survival is also tearing me apart.

I often feel like a Cylon.

The other morning was one of those days where I could not get out of bed. I lay there for several hours, staring at the ceiling, awake but unmoving. I knew I needed to pee but I couldn’t care enough to actually do anything about it. I just lay, and stared, and lay, and stared. But I also knew that I needed to front, to put on the happy face, to be “productive.”

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So I hauled my ass out of bed and peed and then slithered back under the covers with the laptop to be jaunty on Twitter and make sure I posted something on my Tumblr.

To an outside observer, my Internet persona was enjoying a perfectly regular, ordinary day. One like any other, where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Inside, I was screaming.

As a defense mechanism, fronting makes a lot of sense, and you hone that mechanism after years of being crazy. Fronting is what allows you to hold down a job and maintain relationships with people, it’s the thing that sometimes keeps you from falling apart. It’s the thing that allows you to have a burst of tears in the shower or behind the front seat of your car and then coolly collect yourself and stroll into a social engagement. You flash a grin at a friend.

“Sorry I’m running late,” you say, thinking up a funny story to serve as a distraction. “I had to stop for some goats to cross the road.”

“You don’t seem crazy,” people say about fronters. Or “your mental illness must not be that bad.”

We are rewarded for hiding ourselves. We become the poster children for “productive” mentally ill people, because we are so organized and together. The fact that we can function, at great cost to ourselves, is used to beat up the people who cannot function.

Because unlike the people who cannot front, or who fronted too hard and fell off the cliff, we are able to “keep it together,” whatever it takes.

Ferocious organization and minute to minute daily scheduling are how I deal with it, forcing myself to go and go and go until I crash at night. Because if I stop, for a second, everything starts to fall apart. And some days I wake up and realize that I just cannot go.

And I don’t want to tell anyone, because that cracks the facade and alerts everyone to the fact that I am fronting. I know my fellow fronters when I see them and we nod at each other, aware that behind every light-hearted Tweet and friendly email may lie acute emotions, stuffed down deep inside so they doesn’t explode.

It leaves you raw and prickly a lot of time because you spend so much energy controlling and suppressing that when something disrupts you, you are totally unequipped to handle it.

I couldn’t find the baking soda the other day because I had put it away two inches to the left of where I usually do and it sent me on a cataclysmic spiral around the kitchen that stopped only when I realized Leila was cowering in fear under the chair.

It also means that in those rare venues where you feel like you can be yourself, you tend to become larger than life, more stagey, more exaggerated, because you spend so much time with your wings clipped.

I am tempestuous in emails to close friends, furious with the fire of my keyboard, letting out all my frustration and rage and pent emotions. It’s like turning on a fire hose at full pressure and expecting a toddler to hold it.

Fronting is also deeply damaging, because it means you don’t really have a way to process your emotions productively or in a healthy fashion.

People often say that I react oddly to emotional situations, and it’s a legacy of years and years of fronting, of training myself to demonstrate a narrow and acceptable range of emotionality. There’s never time to actually process life events because I am always going.

Constantly teetering at the brink, you eventually run out of gas, with fronting, and then you realize you’re like the roadrunner, suspended in midair, legs still churning. By then it is absolutely too late to do anything about it and you just have to fall, hit bottom, and wait to see what happens next.

Breaking out of these patterns is incredibly hard to do, especially when you’re constantly reminded that they are desirable.

Those stories in the news that I read every week remind me that outward expressions of mental illness can endanger me, and that having large numbers of people aware that I am mentally ill could also be dangerous to me.

Being mentally ill means that I am more likely to be shot by police. I am more likely to be raped or assaulted, and ignored when I file a report. I am more likely to be institutionalized, to be condemned as an unfit parent (if I wanted to parent), to be denied employment or fired because my workplace refuses to accommodate me. To be falsely convicted of a crime.

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These are the things I think about when I tell myself I should stop fronting, the reminder that being mentally ill already means I have a target on my back. That the only thing saving me may be my ability to compartmentalize, to front like it’s going out of style, to convince everyone around me that everything is just fine.


 

1. This is usually primarily framed as being a problem for the not-crazy people endangered by the crazy people. Return

2. Spoiler: Crazy people are scary and evil! We will steal your boyfriend, boil your bunny, and unravel your knitting. Return