I’ve Hidden My Mental Illness From Those I Love Most. Here’s Why.

I have, and live with, an illness that society still struggles to understand.
The author and her husband.
The author and her husband.
Courtesy of Kim Zapata

I’ve tried to pinpoint the moment I transitioned from a carefree child to a depressed teen, but I can’t. There was no event or “incident.” Instead, my personality just faded. I was a light on a dimmer ― an incandescent bulb that slowly began to die out. But the pieces I have managed to put together give me glimpses into a troubled past. When I was 12, I became self-conscious. I was 100 pounds, which was 10 pounds too many, and I wore oversized shirts and ill-fitting pants to hide myself and my body.

My clothes became my armor, a shield separating me from the world.

In eighth grade, I lost my voice — not literally but figuratively — because while my girlfriends were thinking about boys and graduation parties, I was thinking about moroseness and death, and these thoughts were not “normal,” or so I was told. The first time I shared my fears with my friends, they pulled away. They told me I was “dark” and “dramatic” and that I shouldn’t take life so seriously ... and I listened. I shut up. I decided it was better to fake it than have no friends.

“Depression is a fickle disease — a tricky disease — and, like most mental illnesses, it warps your thoughts.”

I withdrew. I went to school and back home, where I watched TV while lying on the couch or in my bed. I slept a lot and ate very little. I started skipping breakfast and picking at my lunches, and by high school, I was sad. An ominous and oppressive weight sat on my chest. Breathing hurt. Being hurt. Living hurt. I was stuck in a windowless room of misery that (I thought) I had constructed, and the guilt became overwhelming. I hated the fact I couldn’t complete the most menial tasks, like brushing my hair or teeth. I also felt broken and “crazy.” Years of living with this in silence made me feel completely alone. As a result, I tried to take my life. I was 17 at the time.

The good news is that, shortly afterward, I sought help, and I saw a doctor and got a diagnosis. I learned I had — and still have — mental health disorders. While I have become comfortable saying the words, “I’m sick. I have an illness. I have bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and I am depressed,” I still struggle to ask for help.

I’ve hidden my mental illness from those I love most.

Of course, I know that sounds silly. My husband has always known about my mental health struggles, which has been instrumental in my caring for myself, but it’s been hard for me to tell anyone else. My friends and family care about me, love me and want to help me. They have told me so, time and time again. But depression is a fickle disease — a tricky disease — and, like most mental illnesses, it warps your thoughts. It makes you believe that you are not worth caregiving or support. It makes you believe you are not good enough, smart enough or interesting enough.

In my head, I hear: “You are hopeless. You are helpless. You are weak. You ruin everything. No one loves you. No one cares.” Plus, I don’t know what to say. I am sad, but there is no reason. I feel empty and numb, but I cannot tell people what that means or why.

“While I have become comfortable saying the words, 'I’m sick. I have an illness. I have bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and I am depressed,' I still struggle to ask for help.”

I am afraid of rejection ― of bearing my soul and being minimized, shot down or ignored ― as I was in eighth grade. That is a pain I’m not sure I can handle. When I am sick, the risk feels too great.

I worry my “mood” will be a burden. I don’t want to hurt my friends or bring them down, so I laugh and smile. I go out in spite of the sadness and pain. The last time I contemplated suicide, I got a blow-out and spent the evening on Broadway. I hid my illness with big hair and a bold lip. Mascara masked my misery ... and my tears.

I worry that if others know the depths of my illnesses they will think I am “crazy.” I will be talked about, mocked and judged, because I have been. Friends and family members have suggested I’m “unbalanced.” I’ve been told “it’s all in your head,” and that hurts. It’s unhelpful to be in the throes of my struggles and to have people I love tell me I’m making it up.

This doesn’t just happen in my personal life, either. It affects me professionally, as well. At my previous job, my mental health issues backed me into a corner. They led me to believe I had to suck it up or go.

I feel an immense amount of guilt for feeling this way. I have a great husband; two happy, healthy and adoring children; a beautiful home; an amazing job; and there is food in our fridge. I know I am #blessed. But things cannot make me happy, and people cannot fix my problem because it is more than a problem.

I have, and live with, an illness that society still struggles to understand.

Make no mistake: We have made great strides in mental health care. Less than 60 years ago, institutionalization was “the norm,” and in the ’40s and ’50s, lobotomies were common. According to Wired, the radical procedure was used to “cure” more than 40,000 mental health patients. And while doctors now rely on medication and therapy to treat mental health disorders, the way these illnesses are discussed is still problematic. We talk about mental illness in muffled voices. We use terms like “is the victim of.” We make excuses to avoid talking about our conditions. I would rather say “I have a headache” than “I’m just really freakin’ sad.” Plus, there is a general lack of education.

“We make excuses to avoid talking about our conditions. I would rather say 'I have a headache' than 'I’m just really freakin’ sad.'”

Growing up, I knew boo-boos needed to be cleaned and cared for but moods should be swallowed. I heard things like “don’t cry,” “stop crying,” “don’t be so dramatic,” and “relax; it’s not that bad,” and these actions perpetuate stigma. They contribute to the mental health crisis. According to the World Health Organization, more than 450 million people live with mental illness, yet most never get treatment. Nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help.

That said, there is help and hope. I have a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and I take medication. Even though it’s hard, I speak openly about my mental health struggles — I am a writer, advocate and the founder of Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental illness — and most days, my smile is genuine. My illnesses are managed. However, I’d be lying if I said things were perfect.

I still struggle with fears of inadequacy and have a hard time opening up. I can speak publicly about mental health any day, but being honest with those I love is harder. I feel vulnerable and raw, but I know these fears are symptoms of my illness and my past so I work with my therapist to feel worthy of time and love. I have removed the word “fine” from my vocabulary and use “okay” sparingly (i.e. I use it to make and accept plans but not to describe my mood). I’m trying to be more truthful about how I’m really feeling when a loved one asks. And while I cannot always explain my feelings, I am getting better about admitting when things are off.

I’m trying to be more open because I know my loved ones also want what’s best for me and my mental health. I am able to say things like “I’m having a hard day” — and that’s huge. It’s a start, and when I say that, my family and friends believe me.

So if you are hurting, know you are not bad. You are not crazy, and you are not alone. There is help. There is hope, and there is support all around you. Your friends and loved ones care. Have the conversations with them to try and figure out how you can feel supported through your struggles.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.


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