I did something the other day that I haven’t had to do in a while. And it wasn’t comfortable. My daughter had been out with a friend on a playdate. When the girl’s father brought Norah home, I stepped outside to say hello and thank him. He asked me how work was going, and I said, “You know, it’s a job. I just go where they need me.” A total lie.
I’ve been out of work for the past three months. I was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution because I wanted to kill myself. But how do you explain that to another guy standing in your driveway with your eight-year-old’s best friend? There might be a way, but I don’t know what it is.
So you make up the most benign story you can think of and you go with it. You fake it. It’s a painful, unfortunate reality for many people who suffer from mental illness. Some of us have to fake it more than others. It really depends on your situation.
It’s not healthy to fake it, especially too often. But there are times when it’s a necessity. For me, this time, it was a little white lie in the midst of small talk. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I’m ok,” when someone asks how you’re doing. But some people feel the need to take it too far, putting on a shield of normality and never getting the help they need. They fake it to their loved ones, their friends, their doctors.
When you come right down to it, most people seem to be uncomfortable talking about mental illness. I often feel like I make people uneasy by my willingness to talk about my issues with depression and anxiety. This has happened in the workplace, with my friends and with my family. People at work looked at my mental illness as something I should deal with on my own time, that there was no place for it at work. They didn’t understand that it was a part of me, that it affected everything I did. My co-workers wanted me to fake it, and I did fake it at work for a long time until my problems became too big a part of my life to continue doing so.
With friends and family, I didn’t fake it so much as try to shield them from what I was feeling. I tried to act like everything was all right, I didn’t talk about the uglier parts of my problems. But in doing so, I think I made it more difficult for them to understand what was going on with me. I was giving them mixed signals, and I got frustrated when they didn’t seem to see the depth of my problems. I ended up either pushing friends away or faking it even more to try to keep them.
In addition to faking it because the conversation’s just too awkward, we often have to fake it in the face of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. People who suffer from mental illness are often afraid to open up about it because society thinks they’re lazy or unmotivated. People with mental illness can’t just “shake it off” or “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” We don’t lack control of our emotions, we certainly don’t lack willpower and we’re not being anti-social.
But so many people are pre-disposed to think of sufferers of mental illness in these ways, that it makes it very difficult to have a conversation. So, those of us who suffer will often fake it than try to fight our way through the stigma. We have to make a decision about whether the person or the situation we’re dealing with is worth the extra work it takes to explain our disease to. Some of those people just aren’t inclined to hear what we’re saying. This isn’t the kind of conversation where you’re trying to convince someone to have dessert after dinner. It’s closer to trying to convert them to your religion.
I don’t think that’s an overstatement. Trying to explain mental illness to someone who doesn’t understand it is a complicated, difficult task. We don’t have the time to try to convert everybody we meet to our side, so often we just have to fake it. We’ve got enough on our hands trying to live our lives and deal with our disease, too – it’s often exhausting work. We have to pick and choose our battles carefully, make them meaningful, make them have purpose.
We don’t want to fake it. We want to be open and honest about what we’re dealing with. But the society in which we live doesn’t want to hear what we have to say. Society doesn’t want to face the ugly reality of living with a mental illness. If it keeps its eyes and ears shut to mental illness, society can go on living its quiet, happy existence without us disturbing it. Living in the world we live in makes faking it a necessary evil for many people suffering from mental illness.
I have come a long way in my battle with depression and anxiety. I am on the road to recovery. But too many people in this world still don’t understand what I, and many people like me, go through on a day-to-day basis. By writing about my struggles, I’m attempting to change that. But until more of that change is made, there will be times when I’ll still be faking it – even after all these years.
Jason has suffered from depression and anxiety for over twenty years. He can be contacted at:https://www.facebook.com/jason.large.12?fref=nf
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