Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Often Do You Have to Pretend You're Not Ill?

Imagine having a stomach virus, getting violently ill in public, and and having to pretend none of it's happening. This seems nearly impossible right? Chances are that, unless it comes on extremely suddenly, you wouldn't have to do this. One hint of "I think I am going to be sick to my stomach" and people scatter out of site to let you do what you need to, so long as you aren't anywhere near them when you do it. But nobody would expect you to cover it up, smile, pretend you weren't just vomiting in the corner, go on with your day as usual.

Sadly, for those of us with mental health conditions, and other invisible illnesses, we frequently have to deal with sudden onset of illness in public. I can't tell you how many times I have an anxiety attack or a panic attack and have to smile through it.  I talk to guests and clients, I interact with coworkers, I carry on throughout my day all while it's happening. I am nearly positive that people can see my rapid heartbeat through layers of bone and skin and clothes, though presumably they cannot, as nobody's ever said anything. I will the color in my face not to go white, and again, nobody ever seems to think it has. I have to calm my hands from shaking. I have to find tricks to slow my breathing - tricks that nobody will notice, I hope. I try quietly do my breathing exercises, while keeping my eyes up, a smile on my face. If someone happens along, I have to abandon these and hope I don't start gasping for air that it feels I am unable to get into my lungs. Because I can't sit there breathing in for 4 counts, hold for 7, out for 8 -  as instructed by my therapist - when someone asks me a question and is expecting an immediate answer.

It's not just at work of course (I am lucky to work in a cool place with great coworkers). It's at the grocery store, at a restaurant, at the UPS store, and pretty much any where my good old anxiety and panic feel like it.  There's often not an external trigger. It's simply my anxiety, often I don't even know over what. It triggers an attack. I have to sit/stand there, pretending my body and brain don't feel like they're about to explode from the inside out. If I must show some sign, I turn away momentarily and make up an excuse... bad sinuses today, my allergies are killing me, that pollen count, long day and I'm tired, etc. I never say, sorry I'm just having an anxiety/panic attack because of my mental health condition, can you give me a few minutes? Because as much as I fight for stopping the stigma, we're not there yet. There is stigma. You can't tell your customers that you're having a flare up with your mental health condition. Maybe if you work as a peer counselor or something similar, where the whole point is that you also battle what those you work with battle. But that's about it. Otherwise, when people ask how I'm doing, it's put on the mask, smile, say "Good! How are you?" or the equivalent. 99 percent of people (especially those who aren't overly close to you) won't say "Really? If not you can tell me and I won't judge you" (and mean it). There are exceptions. I recently got an unexpected and very welcome hug the other day from someone who actually pays attention to my tweets and posts and knew I was having a pretty rough go of it. Hi five to that person (really, a heartfelt thank you) - if you ever need a hug, I owe you one.  I wish there were more people in the world like that.

I hope that one day, I can be as open about my illness with everyone as I would be if I had diabetes or cancer or some other "more socially acceptable" illness. I hope that I can say, "I'm having an anxiety attack. I need some time until it passes", as I would with any more visible condition. I hope I can call in sick with a mental health emergency as I would with a stomach bug, and it be completely acceptable. But that day isn't here yet. And I know that for most people, it's ignorance in the true sense of the word. They don't know what they don't know. They only know what they've been told, over and over, from numerous sources. Unless someone close to them suffers, how do they know the information they've been fed from so many sources is BS?  And so we go on, putting on a mask, smiling, laughing, having a "great day/weekend/month/year", even when we feel like we're dying inside.

So next time you're tempted to look at someone unable to get out of bed because of depression, who can't handle one more burden that causes them anxiety, who desperately, finally needs a day for themselves, pause before passing judgement. Remember what they have to do every day, pretending they don't have a chronic illness, smiling through anxiety and panic attacks, talking cheerfully through horrible depressive episodes, because they have no other option. We are not weak or lazy, or not trying hard enough. We are strong as shit, but nobody can be that strong, every single day, while ill, and never need a break. Give us some slack. We pretend we're not ill ever day, even in the midst of a horrible attack. How often do you have to do that?

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