When you’re a mentally ill professional, I remarked to a friend the other day, you don’t have time for meltdowns. You have to haul on that front, no matter what the cost, to appear smooth and unruffled, focused and productive. You smile at the right times, do the right things, make sure everything is in order, because your professional colleagues aren’t interested in what’s going on in your personal life, and it’s unprofessional to be a human being. We understand on an intimate level that a failure to front in our professional lives could put our careers at risk, and for some of us at least there’s also a sense of not wanting to let down ‘the team.’ I want to prove that mentally ill people are perfectly competent, skilled, passionate, talented workers, so that other people with mental health conditions encounter less discrimination when they’re looking for work.
But what about in our personal lives? We spend a lot of time being told that bottling up emotions is unhealthy and we should express ourselves and I cannot even begin to tell you how many of my friends have said they’ll ‘always be there for me’ and ‘are happy to talk any time.’ Those things are said with love, with a genuine desire to help, but with all due respect, they’re also said with a total lack of understanding about mental illness and how it works. Those friends don’t really want me to drop the facade and be real with them, even though they think they do, and they definitely don’t want to be providing amateur counseling services.
Dropping the facade isn’t just about vulnerability. Although that’s certainly a part of it; it does involve exposure of yourself, your deepest emotions, the complex things going through you. It’s also raw, rough, unfinished, and it can be shocking to people who are used to the you-that-fronts. When you’re not putting on an act, your whole body changes, your face changes, your voice shifts. You become a very distinctly different person; and some people might argue that it’s misleading to live a false identity with the people you love and consider friends, but I would argue that the dual identities experienced by many mentally ill people are both real and valid.
Sometimes I’m fronting. Sometimes I’m genuinely me and I’m happy and things are going well and I’m feeling confident and assertive, strong. Sometimes the genuine me is not that person, though, and is instead someone much darker, sadder, more complicated. Angry, anxious, frustrated, terrified, caught in a spiral of depression, a low sense of self-worth, and the other complex emotions that a combination of mental illness and simply being alive can create. I hide these things from people not out of shame, but out of a desire to protect them, because most of those people are not ready to see and experience those things.
And when they are confronted with them, their first impulse is to run away, or to recoil in shock that the person they thought they know was more complicated than they realised, or to pout when they come to the sudden understanding that people are not always going to put up a facade for their convenience. Let me ask you something: if you’re having a low period, and you’re in an emotionally-fragile state, how do you think you would feel if the people close to you, the people who promised to be there for you, the people who offered to be there anytime to talk, suddenly left you out in the cold?
The consequences of that, in case you haven’t guessed, can be devastating. Not only have you exposed yourself in a very vulnerable, emotional, and intense way to someone else, but that person has responded by shutting you out and backing away. That’s not going to make you feel any better; it’s going to reinforce your brain’s whisperings that you’re a terrible person worth nothing who should go die now. And it’s going to remind you that you need to front even when you are being torn apart inside, because the people around you may love you very much, and may be wonderful, warm, loving, fantastic, open people, but they are not equipped to cope with everything.
And that is okay. That’s why we have paid counselors who offer services to people with mental health conditions who need a safe environment to drop the front, to talk to someone, to discuss issues they are experiencing. That’s why therapy is so widely encouraged as a part of mental health treatment, because it can be critical alongside medication and other means of managing a mental health condition, and therapists provide vital services to their clients.
People sometimes seem shocked or irritated that I would rather pay someone else to talk to me for an hour than open up to them, but what they don’t seem to understand is that this is what is healthier for both me and for them. That I need the security and safety of a therapist’s office, the advice of a trained professional, the compassion and levelheadedness of someone who is prepared to deal with that dark side of myself because that’s what a therapist does for a living. My therapist isn’t going to be repulsed by me, won’t turn away in disgust at the revelation of my raw emotions, won’t accidentally reinforce negative self-thoughts (if, of course, my therapist is competent).
It’s hard for people to hear this, but the fact is that for some of us, we front to function, and we also front to protect you, and when we say that we prefer therapy to talking with our friends, it’s not intended to be a slight. It’s, if anything, a gesture of respect, because therapy is complex, and it’s too much of a burden to put on a friend.
And with help from a therapist, there’s a chance we’ll be able to open ourselves up to you a little more, without having to feel like we’re jumping from an emotional precipice with no turning back.