Saturday, 29 September 2012

Hiding illness. But being ill. (But you don't look ill)


Here's my thoughts on hiding.
Ness x

Have you ever seen a cat fall off a wall? When they do they pick themselves up, have a quick look around and start casually cleaning themselves. They pretend that everything's fine and they totally intended to hit the floor just like that.  Its a conscious behaviour to disguise weakness or injury and it is a completely instinctive survival mechanism. Many ill and disabled people act this way too. Its a conscious decision to hide their symptoms and it becomes an ingrained survival strategy.

Its an art which any professional actor would be proud of and we learn it gradually and subconsciously over time. We become hyper aware of our actions and expressions, we disguise all of the little signs that give away how we're really feeling.  We choose our words with care, steering conversations away from subjects which might give away what our lives are really like. We make up stories and excuses to explain away the things we cannot hide. We have two major allies in this deceit - our own adrenaline and other people's collusion. When the outside world feels like a hostile place its normal to produce extra adrenaline, we learn to harness this to give us the extra strength we need to maintain the act. The more hostile the situation, the greater the adrenaline supply, the better the act. There's always a physical and mental payback for this but when the crash comes we're usually safely out of sight. And the other people? On the whole they're much more comfortable believing that we're fine so they encourage us to hide our difficulties and differences.

Why do we do it? There are as many reasons as there are illnesses and disabilities and it applies equally to mental and physical problems. We do it to save the discomfort of other people, to avoid upsetting or worrying those we care about. We do it to preserve our pride and dignity. We do it to 'fit in', to appear like the ordinary people around us and not draw attention to ourselves; the world is not always kind to those who stand out. We do it to avoid being judged and labelled. We do it to keep ourselves safe: our conditions can leave us very vulnerable both physically and emotionally and there are people who would take advantage of that weakness. Just like the cat, our safety can depend on keeping that vulnerability concealed.

For me, I've been hiding the effects of my lack of mental health for so long I no longer know how not to.  Much of the time I wish I didn't hide - its exhausting, isolating and often counter productive. Its confusing for the people who care about us when our outward appearance is so at odds with what they know is really going on for us. Worse is the way those who would deprive us of support use it against us. We present as ok, we appear to be coping therefore anything which we tell them about our genuine struggles must be a lie. They choose to believe the act because it saves them from dealing with how ill, exhausted and afraid we really are and just how difficult we're finding it to cope. In this way we are often discriminated against and ignored.

So next time you find yourself thinking, "but you don't look ill", or questioning the honesty of someone who tells you they're struggling, please pause and remember - many of us act well and some of us act a bit too well for our own good.
Thanks to Ness for her great insight on the "BUT YOU DON'T LOOK ILL" THEME

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