The Big Reveal

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The question was a simple one, but after fifteen minutes I was still staring at the screen, paralyzed with indecision.

Is there anything else we should know while we select roommates?

The email was from the program coordinator of an upcoming writer’s retreat. We’d been told we would be sleeping two to a room, but I’d put off dealing with that part. Instead I zipped through the easy ones: Was I vegan/vegetarian? An early riser/night owl? Did I have chemical sensitivities?

This was the last call for responses. It was down to the wire.

Is there anything else we should know while we select roommates?

“I know it’s against the rules, but I’m requesting that I be allowed to room alone,” I typed. “Because I have a mental disability, and…”

I already hated the way this looked in print. Okay, so it was true, but so general it came off as squirrely. Why, exactly, would a mental disability equal the need to have a room all to myself? Was I incapable of behaving normally in close quarters? Prone to pyrotechnic displays of madness? Specificity is the soul of narrative, I thought, and tried again:

“Because I’m having recurrent panic attacks, and I’ll desperately need a place I can have them without anyone watching.” DELETE. “Because at night I am often fetal and weeping on the bathmat.” DELETE.

Whatever I said, this was going to fall under the heading “never getting a second chance to make a first impression.” In my original application, I’d mentioned having a disability while refraining from saying exactly what kind. Now that I’d cleared the hurdle of getting in, did I really want to single myself out — before we’d even met in person — as the one whose psychological state was so fragile it had to be specially accommodated? I wanted the program directors to be tuned into my potential to be a rising star, not my capacity for yielding to the gravity of the bathroom floor.

“No special needs,” I wrote at last. “I do go to bed pretty early, though.” I hit send, feeling sorry for my roommate-to-be.

As it transpired, I needn’t have worried about subjecting anyone to a one-woman show called Putting the Depressive into Manic-Depressive. The supercharged atmosphere of the writer’s retreat instantly tipped my neurological scales into manic mode — and, since everybody there was having more or less the same experience, I blended right in.

After a few wildly over-stimulating days capped by sleepless nights, however, I worried that I was on the cusp of triggering an episode of true mania, the kind where I stop seeming super peppy and outgoing, and start scaring my own dog into hiding under the couch at the sound of my voice. I confessed this to one of the other writers. “Oh, I’m bipolar, too,” she said, “All this overstimulation? I’m just barely holding on!” While there wasn’t much to be done about the problem at hand, the mutual admission came as a mutual huge relief. Like children at sleepaway camp trading candy, we offered each other our favorite flavors of tranquilizers out of our respective stashes, giggling in commiseration.

Outing myself before anyone else could out me became my modus operandi the first time I fell in love with another girl. I was thirteen, and I was aware — back in those days before Ellen and sensitivity training — that I might be setting myself up for every kind of trouble, but I didn’t care. Declaring my queerness catapulted me out of my ugly duckling stage. In the reckless exuberance of first love, I hoisted my freak flag high and cultivated a persona of flamboyant nonchalance, ostentatiously giving zero fucks what anybody thought.

The following year, I was institutionalized after a suicide attempt. When I returned to ninth grade, I discovered that my best friends had fabricated a cover story on my behalf: I’d spent the past few months under the care of an aunt, in the exotically distant city of San Francisco. The rumors had coalesced, I seem to recall, around the notion that I’d had an abortion.

I absolutely didn’t see the point in going along with this. Wasn’t it sort of glamorous to be locked up — in a Frances Farmer kind of way? Dismissing a cover story as cowardly, I told any classmate who wanted to know exactly where I’d been and why. I fielded questions about what it was like inside a loony bin the same way I fielded questions about what two girls did in bed: enjoying the shock, enjoying the power to disseminate secret knowledge of a parallel and secret world.

For the remainder of my time in school, I wore my illness like a lopsided crown, not bothering to hide the raggedy lacerations dug into my arms with glass, or my uncontrollable masochistic impulses, or my manias in which I might stand in the backyard for half the night, receiving directives from forces beyond this dimension.

For better or worse, I’m not that honest any more.

Revealing that you’re mentally ill has consequences that you can neither predict nor control. The response from a new acquaintance can be anything from a shockingly insensitive barrage of questions, to a polite, nearly imperceptible backing-away, to — as in the case of the writer at the retreat — hooray, you’re crazy too, I’m not alone!

The only control you’ve got is the way you choose to play the revelation out. In scenarios that hold a possibility of intimacy, you can allow the truth to emerge in manageable pieces; or go the full Monty; or wait for your counterpart to show theirs before you show yours. Much depends on your emotional investment: it’s scarier to risk a bad reaction from someone you really like. Still, in the early stages of intimacy, the risk of rejection cuts both ways. Both parties are wobbling their way toward one another on the tightrope of trust, and there’s always the chance that somebody’s going to go down. I’ve hit the net a bunch of times. But, that can happen regardless of whether or not there’s a page in the DSM-V with your picture on it.

But when the decision is whether or not to tell — or how to tell — an authority figure, or someone with power over your daily life, wobbling on a tightrope towards trust is not necessarily an option. It’s hard to frame the bald fact of mental illness for potential landlords, employers, roommates, or co-workers without fearing the worst. When cornered into doing it, I always end up saying but. I have a mental illness, but.

Sometimes there’s little choice about finesse; it can come down to checking a box. Those medical history forms you fill out in the waiting room of your new doctor/acupuncturist/chiropractor/dentist/podiatrist, for example. Please list any medications you are currently taking, and for what. So there you are, naked under your paper gown, and there is the new gynecologist or dermatologist, glancing at the page. “So, you’re taking x, y and z for psychological reasons,” they say casually. “What’s your diagnosis?”

I match their casual tone, and my heart of hearts, I do derive a kind of complicated pride about being mentally ill — because, like old age, it ain’t for sissies. But I always have to quell a little wave of dread that my presenting physical problem will be dismissed as psychosomatic, or worse, that I’ll be seen as malingering.

And prospective landlords? Forget it. I direct them to my current employer — who is both aware of, and endlessly patient with, my limitations — and skip the part about being on Social Security. Sure, it’s illegal to discriminate, yes, Americans with Disabilities Act, uh-huh, tenant’s rights, Section 8, yadda yadda yadda. I live in a city where looking for an affordable apartment is like looking for a hidden cache of pizza on a sinking lifeboat. Am I going to go for the big reveal and cross my fingers that, from a pool of unknown quantities — some of whom actually do have a savings account — a landlord is going to pick the crazy lady who makes under twenty grand a year? [Note to future prospective landlords google-searching my name: I am actually an awesome tenant though.]

Of course, theoretically a landlord, employer, or the like is supposed to accept one’s disability without inquiring as to its precise nature. But humans are a curious lot. I once admitted to getting Disability checks to a farmer I wanted to work for, because he kept pressing me to explain how I could survive on such low wages if I was only showing up to pick vegetables half the week. What was I thinking? He ran a farm — of course he wouldn’t want a farmhand who wouldn’t be able to keep up with the grueling labor entailed. Honestly, I didn’t blame him for prying.

“I’ve got Crohn’s Disease,” I replied quickly, correctly assuming that if I made it all about shit, he wouldn’t ask any more questions. For all I knew, he’d have been a fount of compassion; for all I knew, he was manic-depressive himself. But I was rice-and-beans broke, and I wasn’t going to risk not being hired.

My open-book policy around mental illness lasted, as I said, through my teen years. This didn’t change even when, at eighteen, I began to have frightening episodes of psychosis. I was very open about it, possibly because I was often so wild-eyed I had no real sense of consequences, not to mention all the LSD I was taking made me extra keyed into the importance of being real.

At that time, I got involved in an ardent but unstructured affair with a certain girl. After a few years of intermittent trysts, she gave me her grandmother’s wedding ring and proposed we get serious, and then shortly after stopped calling me. After some time, she eventually returned for further rounds, but I never asked her to explain exactly why she’d abruptly vanished.

Recently, she and I met again for the first time in nearly two decades. Feeling rather old and wise, we sat on a mountainside, wrapping ourselves in shawls as the fog rolled in, and reviewed the parts of our shared history that we’d been too immature to process at the time. I finally asked why she’d bailed on me, all those years ago — if she even remembered, that was.

“I do remember,” she said immediately. “I was judging you for your mental illness.”

The possibility had never occurred to me.

“My mother raised me to believe that you don’t get sick; you just don’t,” she explained. “At the time, you were very clear that you were mentally ill, that it was a part of who you were. But I thought it was a choice you were making — I thought you could just stop, and I judged you for it.”

I wrapped the shawl tighter around my shoulders. So, I thought, my worst fear really had come true. I’d presented my craziness without qualifiers and the response was, in fact, disgust; it was, in fact, a diminution of respect me; it was, in fact, abandonment.

What would have happened, I mused, if I hadn’t fully let her in on it, and therefore gotten to wear that ring? I felt a pang of regret for the lost opportunity.

But pretending to be sane wouldn’t have made me sane. In fact, the strain of hiding my illness would likely have caused me to break down with even more frequency. How would she have coped with those dysphoric, hallucination-ridden breakdowns — and how would I have dealt with her uneducated reactions? No, I thought: probably it was better for both of us that she’d called it quits.

I braced myself, then, to feel the sting of unfiltered reality. But the sting didn’t come. The truth was I accepted her previous lack of understanding. I accepted the consequences that had come as a direct result of having been honestly, messily, flagrantly, delusion-spoutingly, crockery-smashingly not sane. Never one to trust a good feeling, I groped around for sorrow and felt, instead, a deep sense of inner peace. It finally dawned on me: what I was feeling was self-acceptance.

Now, at last, I understood. I will never be able to influence another person’s response to the announcement that I do in fact have a mental illness. But in the end, there’s only one person upon whose acceptance I truly rely.


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Profile gravatar of Jenna Leigh Evans

Jenna Leigh Evans has been named one of LAMBDA Literary's LGBT Emerging Voices of 2014. Her novel, Prosperity, was published this year. Her work can be found in The Billfold, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, Electric Literature's The Outlet, FragLit, and Ping pong, the journal of the Henry Miller Library. She lives in Brooklyn and you can find her at jennaleighevans.com! You can watch the trailer for her novel on YouTube.

Jenna has written 2 articles for us.

26 Comments

  1. i really enjoyed this article, but as my mental health is also far from wonderful, i was very bothered by the mention of self harm. would autostraddle consider having specific content warnings at the beginnings of articles that mention/discuss things that may trigger people, such as self harm, suicide, and eating disorders?? thanks so much for everything you all do here!!

  2. The online dating world of lesbians has brought me such treasures as “bipolar girls need not apply,” and “I like everyone, but stay away if you’re bipolar.” And sometimes, when it is late at night and I am feeling particularly ornery, I will message these women, asking them if they actually know what they are saying. Usually they don’t. They don’t realize that “bipolar” does not equal “extremely moody and irrational,” but is actually a mental illness.

    It’s extremely frustrating that this sort of rampant misunderstanding and discrimination exists.

    I was diagnosed with BPD at 16, which is the same year I became much less truthful about things. Your article really stroke a chord with me. Often I feel angered by the seeming necessity of hiding my disorder. People who have witnessed my manic state think of me as an adrenaline junkie and super fun to be around, the life of the party. But the truth is that I am far from that person. I am extremely laid-back the majority of the time, and would rather watch tv than go out almost any night other than those nights I spend wasting all my money of booze and things I suddenly desperately must have.

    As much as I realize that there is no cure, that often this part of me gets worse with age and not better, I sometimes let myself slip into believing I will be “better” someday. But you have given me real hope that someday I will simply be at peace with it.

    Thank you, from the bottom of my soul.

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    I think there’s this unpleasant dynamic between care providers/”support” systems and “oversharing.” It’s something that can be really harmful. I work with victims/survivors of DV, and many of them know how to talk about mental illness in a more clinical, accurate way. I take this as it is. Others (in MH care) take this as them “working the system,” so it’s something I work with providers on a lot. Sharing is a way to cope, to share expectations and needs, and to bond with others. It’s a good thing if you’re ready!

  4. Thanks for this. I am so interested in your perspective. I have been diagnosed with a variety of fun mental things for the past 20 years, and am now looking at a possible BP II diagnosis. I have to say, after hiding my mental health issues for a lot of those years (and having them squeeze out of the cracks anyway), I give less fucks in my old age and am more open about it now. Just like coming out as LGBTQ, coming out as mentally ill helps, slowly but surely, reduce the stigma.

  5. I’ve come to think of it not as an illness anymore. I’m certainly not sick. Of course there is always the potential for things to get painful, scary or bad, but I consider this potential to be “difference”, not “illness”. The actual bad phenomena that I may experience may make me unwell for that time, but the rest of the time, I’m not sick. I’ve had loved ones find it hard to grasp this idea and it’s been frustrating. I still grapple with coming out to employers as someone with mental stuff who should probably have some sort of accommodations.

    • I can see what you mean. I hesitate to say mental health issues are not illnesses, because I feel very much like what I face is an illness, a chronic illness. I can be medicated and do therapy to help, but it feels easier to cope with calling it an illness. It’s not so much just a difference because it is so Malad apt and difficult to live with.

      • If it helps you cope to think of it that way, then all the power to you:) I know everyone’s experiences vary. I guess I’m just angry because of all the years of being treated as “sickie” in my family. Having people constantly watch me like watchdogs to regulate my bedtime, how much excitement I’m having, having people dispense me my pills at regular intervals and shame me if I’m 5 mins late for pull time, having to go to appointments so often that it impedes me from getting a job… For me, not thinking of it as an illness has helped me cope in a different way

  6. I suppose it’s a bit rude of me to blatantly seek advice, while you are simply trying to share a piece of who you are, which is truly brave and beautiful. BUT, any thoughts on how to approach a discussion on mental health with a friend/lover whom you may suspect of having a mental illness?
    I’ve pondered this for the last 9 months or so, as I’ve watched someone close to me slowly meet all the symptoms of a bipolar disorder (and who knows she may have a diagnosis already). I want to be able to have a frank discussion about her well being, and let her know that I care, but I can’t muster the words to level a diagnosis on her? After all, who the fuck am I to accuse someone of a mental illness, with all the added weight that brings? I’ve scoured the internet and the one thing they can all assure me is not to say, “Hey, I think you’re bipolar…” Beyond that…

    • I don’t have any advice for you on this, but i just want to empathise with you, because it can be tough to feel completely useless.

      I dated a BP girl for 6 months (she would never label it until after we broke up but i knew based on her medication and behavior). It’s hard to care for someone while dancing around the central issue but sometimes that’s all you can do, be there and care.

    • I think, both from the perspective of someone who has wanted to help loved ones and as someone who has needed help myself, usually the best thing you can do for a person is just be there for them and make it clear that you care and are always there to listen. and–sometimes, a lot of times, those facts bear reiterating. things like depression make people feel like they’re being the worst and most burdensome even when the other person is glad to help.

      pressing an issue that someone isn’t ready to be vulnerable about usually doesn’t work too well in my experience. maybe she hasn’t accepted it herself or maybe that’s not what she’s struggling with or maybe a million different things.

    • As someone who is a raging case of depression (though sometimes I suspect that I may also meet the criteria for dipolar disorder and should really bring that up with the therapist) and who has been on the other side of trying to support people dealing with depression and bipolar disorder, don’t ever diagnose them. Ever. They might feel unsupported, attacked, or as though you are judging them/can no longer be trusted.

      Things you can do: check in on them (“hey, you’ve seemed a little off these past few months. You doing okay and/or anything I can do to help?”). Let them know that you are there if they need to talk. Equally important, let them know that you are there if they need to not talk about things (because seriously sometimes the last thing I want to do is talk about my mental illness as everyone thinks that talking about it will make it better. No. Sometimes that just leads to fixating on it and making things worse). Volunteer to do distracting things like watching a movie or baking cookies or other such activity with your friend.

  7. I don’t know about this. We have medical privacy for a reason. Your under no obligation to share private medical information.

    I’m confused about why anyone would need to tell a landlord, employer, or school specifics about a mental illness.

    I understand that in a roommate situation. Symptoms are difficult to hide. And shouldn’t need to hide in your own room. But, I think you’ve been lucky not t o have more negative experiences.

    I remember in middle school the was a girl struggling with self harm. Once in it got out the other parents panicked and didn’t want her near their children. I know that wasn’t your experience but I would never recommend a child or teenager to share that information.

    There is such stigma against mental illness. People don’t react well. Every time you share that information your taking a huge risk.

    • It is a huge risk. I think it can help to destigmatize mental illness to “come out.” But I also don’t think that we should place the responsibility of destigmatizibg mental illness on those who are unable or feel unsafe disclosing their illness, much like sexual/gender identity. If you feel safe, coming out can be great. If you do not, it can be very harmful.

  8. Hey kittens! FYI: I’m always happy to respond to specific questions, but my policy is to do so outside of Comments sections. So feel free to contact me any time via my website, at jennaleighevans.com. And thank you for your readership, appreciation, honesty, bravery, vulnerability…

  9. This is really beautiful. I’ve never been officially diagnosed by a doctor, but I’ve had depressive episodes, acute stress disorder in the past, and have self-harmed. So mental illness is an issue that is close to my heart. Thank you for putting your struggles into words, and sharing them with us, for it truly helps us people who are working through it ourselves. There are so many things that resonated with me – the honesty, the weird ‘pride’ of being mentally ill, the constant negotiation with the world around you. And I hope to be able to one day come to that place of acceptance that you have.

  10. Thank you so much for this piece of work. I have been a long time suffer of panic attacks, phobias and too many different kinds of fear to name. I have always found reading other peoples experiences to be eye opening, comforting and most of all creating a safe space within my world where I can believe that at least if there is no cure for such things, there is a place for them. A way to be a complete person even given such a strict society.
    I remember the beginning when my fear began to manifest being told over and over again to ‘just not think about it’ as if that was the easiest thing in the world. It was those people that made me begin to hide my illness even though I didn’t want to. Even though hiding made things even harder and more complicated. A few years after that I was confronted by yet another common saying. ‘Anxiety is one of the most treatable mental illness.’ I suppose this was meant as a comfort, but to me it was a mixed statement. It felt dismissive of the things that I had dealt with and experienced. It also felt as though these people wanted me to be different. To somehow get better and return to the girl they believed me to be. As though I couldn’t be myself and be scared at the same time. I do not wish to live in fear, but I don’t wish to be judged for fear either.
    This story has reminded me that acceptance is the strongest thing we can find. That is worth the search. Thank you again.

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