Being Good At Living With Mental Illness Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Have It
“How do you just talk to people so easily?” she asked me. “I’d be so anxious.”
“That’s my secret,” I replied, pulling out my best Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers voice. “I’m always anxious.”
I’m often told, especially by people in mental health professions, that I “handle” my mental illness very well. Though I know their hearts are in the right place, it never stops feeling like a backhanded compliment. It feels like being told that I pass for normal very well— or that I’m crazy, but I’m GREAT at it.
The idea of “being good at handling metal illness” leads to a lot of invalidation among those who live with it. Nearly every time I come across someone neuro-typical (not living with mental illness) and they find out that I’m a manic-depressive or that I deal with severe anxiety, I always hear the same thing:
“You have anxiety? No way, you’re such a people person! You get along well with everybody!”
Well, yeah. In my experience, having a full-blown panic attack in the middle of a crowded bar or hitting a major depressive episode during a house party is grounds for being stared at like some sort of freak and socially exiled.
Or, at the very least it’s frowned upon.
I began to “handle” my mental illness well once I realized it wasn’t something to be handled.
For the first few months after my diagnosis with Bipolar II, I found that I was distancing myself from a lot of people. I was terrified that my mental illness would have a negative effect on my personal relationships, so I took a step back from those around me. I stayed away from any sort of dating because I was convinced what I was going through was too much to put onto someone else, and that I was best going it alone until I got a hold of what was “wrong with me.”
I always did have a flair for the dramatic.
One day, a close friend sat me down for a talk about where I’d been. When I finally opened up to him about being afraid of losing everyone because of what was wrong with me, he was quiet for a long time before he finally spoke.
“The ironic thing,” he said to me, “is that it’s not your bipolar disorder that’s fucking you up. It’s being afraid of it.”
He always had a gift for throwing me through a loop in the span of a sentence.
He was right. Living with Bipolar Disorder really wasn’t doing anything that negatively impacted my life, but the anxiety surrounding being “mentally ill” was. The fear that I was unstable, as though I hadn’t been living with this illness for much longer before I was diagnosed, made me afraid to let people in.
Since my diagnosis, I looked at my Bipolar Disorder as something that “happened to me.” I treated my mental illness as something adversarial. I saw it as an event that took place in my life and made it more difficult, not as an experience meant to help me further understand my own mind.
Bipolar Disorder isn’t something that happened to me, it’s an extension of me. It’s a part of me.
Instead of continuing to push everything away in the pursuit of seeming “normal,” I elected to learn about my mental illness. I spent a long time figuring out my triggers, discovering how to recognize when I was experiencing a depressive episode, and learning what self-care looked like for me. I started to treat myself gently and with more patience, even during the really bad episode, and as a result I was able to learn to live with my mental illness and stop living in spite of it.
The more I learned about my own social anxiety, the better I got at interacting with people. For me, interacting with people was a lot like getting into a pool— it’s strangely intimidating and hard to do, so you’ve just gotta jump in. When I see a group of people at a party or an audience I’ve got to speak to, it’s terrifying. So, I learned to not give myself the time to be scared and just talk the plunge head-first.
The extent to which my mental illness is visible to you doesn’t reflect what an overwhelming effect it has on my life. Every person you meet who deals with mental illness understates how exhausting their condition is in order to try and keep up appearances. When you only use what you see to make judgments on the severity of someone’s mental illness, all you’re doing is being dehumanizing and invalidating to the people who are living with them.
One of the hardest aspects of living with mental illness is fighting the societal notion that you’re broken. Mental illness as portrayed in the media make us seem unhinged, like there’s something wrong with us. In reality, we’re not “broken” in the slightest, just wired differently than other people. The first step to living a full and happy life with mental illness is realizing that you don’t have to seem “normal” in order to have value.
You can be strange, you can be different, and regardless of what anyone might say, you’re valid and important as you are.
Matt Joseph Diaz is a public speaker, writer and social media activist tackling the issues of body image and self love. Matt has been working in social media since the age of 15, and has a long history of creating online content for entertainment and educational purposes. Matts videos have accrued over 120 million views in countries all over the world as well as being featured in People, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, Upworthy and numerous other news websites. He now spend a lot of his time traveling and speaking on self love at conferences, colleges and public events. Matt Joseph Diaz currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.