A few years ago, I stumbled across a photography series by Liz Obert entitled Dualities. From her own struggle with mental illness, Liz realized that people with mental illness often live dual lives: the life we live in public and the life we live in private. In this series, each model has two portraits taken of them. The first depicts how they present themselves to the world, while the second reveals their behavior behind closed doors while in the belly of their mental illnesses. The first subject I saw was a woman smiling on her porch. It was a bright, sunny day and she was getting ready to play a sport. She described herself as having an undeniable vitality for life and as “able to speak for myself and on behalf of others with a clear loud voice.” In her second photograph, she was curled up in her bed, surrounded by mess. She described herself as “small and needy” and as “a shadow of my real self.” It wasn’t until viewing this series that I realized I had been living a dual life for over a decade.
When I tell people I have social anxiety disorder, there is nearly always an exclamation of disbelief. “But you’re so social and outgoing” they say. You don’t realize that you only see me on my good days. When my social anxiety is bad, I don’t leave the house. Social anxiety frequently holds me back from making phone calls, going to work, eating in restaurants, walking down the street, and going on dates. When I was in college, I often couldn’t muster up the strength to walk to the dining hall. Even on good days, my mind obsessively ruminates over all the “stupid” and “embarrassing” things I said or did, which will keep me up that following night.
When I tell people I have depression, they say “but you’re so bubbly and warm!” I explain that I don’t present myself to others when I’m depressed. I may go days without showering, as the pellets of water hurt my skin. My eyes may be swollen from crying and simply getting out of bed feels like drowning. You don’t see me sitting on the floor in my filthy room texting the suicide hotline. You definitely don’t see me going to the emergency room because of suicidal ideation.
When I tell people about the degrees I’ve earned and the jobs I’ve held, they say “you are so successful.” While I have experienced some success, I want you to know that my success isn’t as polished as you believe it to be. You don’t know that I dropped out of high school and earned my GED because I was too mentally ill to go to school. You don’t know that one time I helped organize a suicide prevention walk in the community, but was unable to attend the actual event because I couldn’t fathom being around others. You don’t see that I miss about 50 percent of my classes and miss at least one day of work per week due to mental illness. You don’t know that I fear I’ll one day be homeless because surviving in a capitalist society is nearly impossible when you’re mentally ill.
Living dual lives is exhausting, but I fear you will deem my mental health symptoms (i.e. quiet, paranoid, foggy mind, irritable, weepy, pessimistic) as characteristics of my personality. If that’s who you see me as, won’t I be unlovable?