Yes and no.
First, a little on the concept of invisible illnesses. These are the sorts of afflictions that are not apparent on first looking at a person – conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, celiac and Crohn’s diseases, diabetes, epilepsy, lupus, Lyme disease, and many others.
Disabled-world.com says, “Many people living with a hidden physical disability or mental challenge are still able to be active in their hobbies, work and be active in sports. On the other hand, some struggle just to get through their day at work and some cannot work at all.”
Most mental disorders are invisible illnesses by that definition. There isn’t a sign around our necks that proclaims “Bipolar,” “Social Anxiety Disorder,” “PTSD,” “Depression,” or even “Schizophrenia.” The word “Crazy” isn’t tattooed on our foreheads. Our mere appearance doesn’t give away our “secret.”
We have a lot of the same problems that people with other invisible illnesses have. Spoon theory, for example. For bipolar people, simply taking a shower requires so many spoons that we seldom go out. (I count myself among that number.) People who don’t know or understand Spoon Theory often don’t understand why we don’t accept their invitations or cancel at the last minute, or simply don’t show up. You lose a fair number of friends that way.
On the other hand, a mental disorder is not always invisible. People can see us burst into tears for no apparent reason, or go into the bathroom at a party and never come out. They can see our shaking hands, confused looks, and depressed expressions. They can hear our awkward attempts to socialize “appropriately.” They may not know what is wrong, but they can often tell something is.
When we realize this is happening, there are various strategies we try. We can leave the situation – entirely or partially (my go-to is to leave the room on the pretext of needing to make a cup of tea). We can try to brush it off or laugh it off (“Sorry. My nerves are bad today” or “I don’t know why I said that. Must be a brain-fart”). We can try the half-truth/half-joke (“Oops. Guess my meds just haven’t kicked in yet”). We can ignore whatever is happening and hope everyone else does too.
Or we can own it. “I have social anxiety disorder and need to be in a less crowded space than the mall.” “I won’t be able to go to the carnival with you because my PTSD is triggered by loud noises.” “I may come to your party if my bipolar disorder will let me.”
We can also address the subject when there isn’t a situation looming. During a phone conversation or an IM chat, we can let the other person know that we have a mental disorder – an invisible illness. It doesn’t have to be dramatic and dire. Casually may be the best way to handle it. “I know you’re wondering why I didn’t go to the movies with you last week.” “When I saw my doctor yesterday we talked about my physical health and my mental health too.” “You know that character on that show that has PTSD? I have that too, but it’s not exactly like on the show.”
If that sounds risky, you’re right. It can be. There will be people who still don’t get it. People who “don’t believe in” mental illness. People who try to brush it off. People who offer the latest vitamins or super foods or Eastern philosophy as the cure-all.
But you’ll also find people who say, “Oh, my brother-in-law has that too” or “Okay. But I’m still your friend” or “What can I do to help?”
So those are the choices, basically.
Take a chance. Or stay invisible.
Neither choice is right or wrong for everyone. Mental illness is very personal.