My Superpower Is That I Appear Fine
I am mentally ill, and I have been since I was fifteen. I’ve been correctly diagnosed for two years now and gone through appropriate treatment. Many days are good, far more than before, but other days still feel like walking barefoot over glass and turning around to do it again.
I am lucky in my disability in that I can hide it so well. I excelled in school, passing all of my classes comfortably and taking part in far too many extracurriculars. I had enough friends and got invited to parties or other events. When I went to university, I managed to blend myself into a larger crowd of people I wished I were and continued my streak of staying far too busy, so I didn’t have a moment to think.
I appear fine from the outside. I didn’t seem like someone who had an eating disorder, despite the constant hunger that made me feel faint and the body dysmorphia that made me break mirrors. I didn’t look like someone who was depressed and cried themselves to sleep every night, as my self-harm was neatly placed and hidden away from sight. I didn’t look like someone who was choked by anxiety as I faked confidence and forced myself through it.
I am grateful in many ways for this, as it led to many opportunities that I may never have encountered otherwise. But there is a dark side to seeming fine, because if you don’t look like the stereotypical image of mental illness, then no one thinks twice. They ignore how thin you’re getting or the scar they accidentally saw. They don’t ask if you’re okay because they don’t think that they need to. When you don’t look mentally ill, you continue to suffer in silence, as no one thinks to start that conversation, and you realise that no one would believe you. Because people start saying that it’s “for attention”, not realising that even this would be enough cause for concern.
When you look fine, it’s too easy to tell yourself that you’re overreacting. That you can’t have depression because you don’t have a reason for it. That you’re just bad at coping with what everyone else must have, you just need to work harder. So you do, and you lose more years to self-hatred and loneliness, and you wait too long until things reach a critical point, where you know that if you’re going to live, this is the moment that things must change. But even then, how do you know that anyone will believe you?
The face of mental illness
If we believed the media, then there is only one face to mental illness. Someone with an eating disorder must be bone thin, like Cassie in Skins or Ellen in To The Bone. Many individuals with eating disorders do end up this way. Still, many others may be less apparent given their natural physique, the nature of their eating disorder and many other factors. It also doesn’t account for bulimia, which can present entirely different but is just as dangerous.
On the subject of ‘To the Bone’, BEAT said, “We were disappointed that at many points in the movie Ellen’s family were depicted as the main cause of her eating disorder, where, in fact, eating disorders are complex, with no one single cause, and there is clear evidence that genetic and biological factors play a role. There is a strong likelihood that people who have been affected by eating disorders would find the film highly distressing or triggering — it includes frequent references to calories, weight and eating disorder behaviours, and images of Ellen at a very low weight. We strongly urge any media reporting on this film to follow our media guidelines, to avoid any further distressing or triggering content.”
Depression is usually pictured as Effie in Skins, and you’re just sad all of the time. Depression isn’t just about sadness, as difficult as that can be to imagine. Depression contains various emotions, including anger and feeling numb. It’s incorrect to assume that someone with depression just lies in bed and cries, as many are high-functioning and continue to go through their life but are still struggling.
And when it comes to BPD, my own mental illness, people most commonly associate it with Alex in Fatal Attraction, who boils her lover’s bunny on a stove, pours acid on his car and threatens to kill his family. We’re known for emotional instability, but that is quite the stretch.
Portrayals like these can seem ‘harmless’ because it’s just a film or just a TV show. But if this is the only form of mental illness you’re portrayed, as you never have a high-functioning person with depression depicted, then this is how you approach the disorder. This is why individuals who don’t match the specific mould are not respected in their pain and why others may not even recognise the illness in themselves.
What Does High Functioning Depression Look Like?
Appearing to cope doesn’t mean your mental illness is “not real” or “not bad enough”.
The invisibility of mental illness
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is estimated that one in five US adults live with a mental illness. I’m guessing that number is far higher than the number of people you know with a mental illness. Why is this? Do you just have a far more ‘functional’ friend group? This discrepancy is due to several factors, including:
- The stigma of mental illness. Individuals don’t feel like they can share their struggle or diagnosis as they’ll face stigma for it.
- Individuals may not have been officially diagnosed yet qualify with their symptoms in surveys. People don’t think they have depression because they don’t fit the stereotype or don’t have a reason and don’t seek appropriate treatment.
Mental illness exists around it, but it can be invisible to the eye. People won’t always look as if they have a mental illness. They may appear to be highly functioning, working in executive positions, raising families or having other forms of success. This shouldn’t diminish their experience. Just because someone looks ‘fine’, it doesn’t say anything about what’s really going on. These forms of mental illness can almost be more frightening, as they don’t receive the same attention and urgency. You’ll suffer in silence for longer, as you appear fine and able to go on.
With this invisible face to mental illness comes the doubt: Do I really feel this way? Do I really need to see someone? No matter how your mental illness appears, if you are struggling, you need to seek help; you deserve to seek help. Don’t allow your coping to create guilt and doubt within your already struggling mind; your experience is as valid as someone who does wear the more traditional face of mental illness.
If someone who appears fine opens up about their experience, it’s vital to resist the urge to look surprised or to say this. Whilst well-intended, this merely invalidates their experience. Instead, confirm that you’re glad the person told you, that confirms their struggle so that they can begin to do so as well.
Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to share your experience when you seem fine, as they are trusting you to believe them, to contradict the doubt paralysing their mind. I’m a productive person who gets up early and takes on too many things. While this is part of my coping, it is also my downfall, as it means that people assume I’m fine and never think to ask if I am. So when I am crippled by the darkness, and feeling empty or alone, I don’t know how to begin to reach out.
How can we change this?
The cure for this predicament is so simple, and you’re playing a part in it just by reading this. In order to show the many faces of mental illness, we must show ours. By telling our stories, we offer a different face to mental illness, and we don’t leave it in the hands of biased filmmakers or writers. We’re not looking for the most dramatic story, merely our own, and so by telling it, we demonstrate the different voices it can have.
By talking about my BPD, I hope to show that we’re not terrifying, and despite what you may see elsewhere, we’re not evil or manipulative. We’ve had a difficult time, and we built coping strategies that are now hurting ourselves and others, but we can get better. I want to show you that BPD can look like any other person, even the girl with straight A’s and an active social life. I want to confirm that you don’t know what’s behind someone’s smile, so don’t assume and instead ask, always ask.
By reading this article, and any other article written by someone else with a mental illness, you learn. You have the opportunity to pass that knowledge further and educate more people. So that if someone says something incorrectly, you have the chance to speak up. So that if you notice something wrong in someone, you recognise that it is worth checking into.
We change this through our consumption, and not just articles but all media. If we support shows or books that accurately showcase mental illness and all forms of it, not just the most ‘interesting’ then we give others a chance to learn as well. We provide those writers, the ones accurately telling our story, the platform to continue doing so. Don’t settle for overdramatised portrayals like Skins, and instead support shows that do their research and recognise their duty.
If you want to learn about BPD, please watch ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’, as nothing has made me feel more understood than the songs in it. Plenty of authors are writing about depression, so take the time to support them and their work. The same goes for any other mental illness.
As consumers, we have a responsibility in what we choose to watch, read or listen to. As people with a mental illness, we have an obligation too. You may not be ready to share your story, and you don’t have to until you’re ready, but until then, you can amplify voices that do. You can apply such a mindset to your peers by never closing yourself off to the many masks that mental illness can wear.