When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in September of 2009, I made the promise to myself that no one would ever know. I wanted everyone who met me to think I was perfect- an unattainable goal that no one can ever meet. A mental illness would mean that I wasn’t perfect; that I was broken and flawed, a reject from God’s assembly line. The shame of having a mental illness would drive me to great extremes, including lying to friends, family, boyfriends, and bosses. If my depression chained me to my bed for a day, my excuse was that “my car wouldn’t start” or I had “caught a stomach bug”. If I couldn’t contain my emotions- sadness, anger, anxiety- then I was “just on my period”. This sham went on for nearly 6 years.
I was afraid that, if people found out about my mental illness, then everything that the depression and anxiety had been telling me would be true. No one would love me. My friends would leave me. My family would be embarrassed of me. As the years (and therapy sessions) went by, I started to overcome this fear and became more and more comfortable with sharing my story with others. First, my sorority sisters, then boyfriends and other friends. But I could never find the courage to talk to my family about it.
I am so very blessed with two of the most amazing parents on the planet, a sister who is both my foil and my soulmate, and an army of aunts, uncles, cousins, second-cousins, and people who aren’t biologically related, yet absolutely part of my family. I was so deeply ashamed of my diagnosis- the idea that I could possibly bring shame to them was paralyzing. Mulan had nothing on me…
“Dishonor. Dishonor on your whole family. Make a note of this- dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow.” -Mushu to Mulan, Disney’s Mulan (1998)
The thing that truly scared me the most was that I was afraid that they would blame themselves. That they would see my depression as a result of something that they did- that they weren’t loving enough or didn’t give me enough attention. Often, when trying to process mental illness, people seek something or someone to blame. I was terrified they would think it was their fault, that it would hurt them, or bring them guilt. That would be the farthest thing from the truth ever possible. I had an amazing childhood. I come from a family that bubbles over with love for each other. Although far from perfect, my family is perfect to me. The idea that they may feel like they were to blame for my mental illness felt like it may kill me. I couldn’t bare to think of it.
So I decided that they would never know. The manager of our insurance account, my mom knew I was seeing a therapist and that I was struggling with anxiety and some depression- but what college student isn’t? She would get the bills from my doctors, so there was no use trying to hide everything from her. But my dad and my sister? I couldn’t let them know. I couldn’t let the facade of the perfect daughter and sister drop.
That is, until I decided to start this blog. While home for Christmas break this past year, I knew I needed to tell them myself rather than let them read about it secondhand. I sat down in my father’s office- him behind his desk, I in the recliner across from him and my mother on the bench next to me. I remember that my mom was doing laundry in the adjacent room so I could smell the clean, fresh scent of detergent- I thought “please help me clean this air, make this easier”. Through tears, sobs, and snot, I explained to my parents that I had been struggling with a mental illness for years and that I was going to start sharing this story, my story- with them and with strangers. My dad’s response?
“Okay. You know I love you and am going to support you no matter what.”
It felt so anticlimactic. I had waited nearly 6 years to tell them that I was sick and the response I got felt so easy and relaxed. Like I had just told them that I was starting a new job or buying a new car. That’s when I realized that it didn’t matter that I had a mental illness, I was still me. My depression and anxiety had never defined me, thus my family saw me for who I was. I was the one who had built up this idea that their love could be swayed by the revelation that I was not their perfect daughter or sister. Their love would never change- mental illness is no match for a family’s love.
And for that, I am most thankful.