One of the contributing factors to the stigma of mental illness is that it’s often not readily visible. Whether we’ll admit it or not, we are a society that likes to see it to believe it. When was the last time you heard “but she doesn’t LOOK sick”? Or the converse “she looks SO depressed”. And that’s not just for mental illness – how often have we weighed in on whether a co-worker was really ill enough to call in sick, or shouldn’t have come to work because they were too sick. Just the other day a friend commented that someone ‘doesn’t look like she has cancer’. Really???!!! Why is that we become self-appointed diagnosticians at the drop of a hat? Who does that serve? Not the person who may or may not be ill; it serves our egos. We like to be in charge, we like to know more than then next person, we like to be ‘on top of our game’. Ugh. And regrettably, I’m as guilty as the next person.
As my daughter’s illness digs in its heels and settles in for the long haul, I find myself increasingly steered by my worry about what others will think. I don’t WANT to be that way, but I am. Not because I care what they might think about me, but I am fiercely protective of what inaccuracies they might think about my daughter.
I know that when things get really bad, it’s even more important to keep some sort of routine, provide activities that will motivate my child to interact with others, find ways to keep her from isolating. But the outside world sees it differently. They see someone who rarely shows up for school, and then goes to her best friend’s birthday party. They think ‘oh how nice, she does what she wants and skips the rest’. What they don’t see is how day after day my daughter struggles just to get out of bed; she doesn’t care what she eats or IF she eats. They don’t see her still awake at 2 am because she feels so edgy and agitated and irritable that she’d like to crawl out of her own skin. They don’t hear her cry for hours because it all feels so hopeless. And they don’t see the fall out after the ‘fun’ activity where my daughter crashes from emotional exhaustion from trying to hold it together while putting on a happy façade. They don’t know that she dragged herself to the party because she didn’t want to let her best friend down.
Few of us want to appear as less than our best (or near best), even though we know at some level that we all are, well . . . human. We have less than perfect moments and less than perfect days. Yet we still seem to believe that others are stronger, prettier, more together, more popular and more successful. To make matters worse, the more superficial the relationship, the more we seem to want to keep up that shiny exterior. How unrealistic we are, how unfair we are, to think that we must hide our pain, hide our imperfections, hide our true selves.
I have two wishes for my daughter. One is for hope. Hope that it WILL get better. Hope that soon the good feelings will come back and outweigh the bad ones. Hope that lost time can be regained, that lost goals can be attained. The other wish is for acceptance. Acceptance at face value with no excuses necessary. Acceptance from others and acceptance from within. I don’t think this is too much to wish for.
Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has over 10 years’ professional experience in child and adolescent mental health, family support, advocacy, writing, public speaking and collaborating with local and national mental health organizations. On a personal level Nanci and her husband are parents of three daughters ages 16, 18 and 20. The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at ages 9 and 10 respectively.