When You're Mentally Ill, You Become Good At Three Things

By s.e. smith
May 23, 2014

May is mental health month, and we're discussing the challenges those with mental illness still face.

We heard from s.e. smith, who is a freelance writer and the Social Justice Editor for the online magazine xoJane.com. And also openly identifies as living with mental illness.



When you’re mentally ill, everything you say and do is viewed through the lens of your illness. When you’re upset about something, people say it’s because you’re crazy. When you’re having a difficult day, or a great one, people say it’s because you’re bipolar. When you’re struggling, people always say it’s because you’re mentally ill, and not because of larger, more complicated factors.

So you become very good at three things.

Hiding your illness, questioning yourself, and putting up a front.

You become very selective in terms of who you out yourself to, and when. If you do it too soon, suddenly you will be discounted and devalued – you’ll never get a call back after that nice date. Your boss will find ways to hassle you. Your voice will be quietly pushed to the back of group conversations. If you do it too late, you’ll be accused of lying, when the truth is something more simple: it’s about self-protection.

You are also constantly questioning yourself. Do I feel this way because this is a legitimate thing to be angry, or sad, or happy about, or is this my illness? You ask, and you ask it all the time. Crazy people are some of the most self-aware. You have to be, because otherwise you run the risk of allowing your emotions to run rampant.

And you become proficient in the art of fronting. You present a smooth, even face to the world even if you’re falling apart on the inside. You do this in order to keep it together, to avoid detection and discussion. You don’t want people to comment on your emotional state, so you lock it up.

So you smile when you feel bad, and temper your good moods. You feel almost robotic at times because you work to ensure that people never see the rough, unfinished edges of your illness. You’ve been taught, and socialized, to understand that society will not make space for you. Instead, you must meld myself to fit society.

But what about those who do not have these skills? Who do not have access to therapy, medication, and other treatments that might help them get stable? Who don’t have homes and support networks? When you pass someone gibbering on a street corner, you reflect on the fact that this could easily be you. This is a society where access to care is predicated on circumstance and privilege, not basic humanity.

People want to say that their perceptions don’t change when they find out you have a mental illness, but they do. We see the change, and we feel it. We feel it in the subtle edging away, in the sudden denial of our experiences and emotions, in the abrupt assumption that we aren’t capable of navigating the world on equal footing.