What do these photos say to you? You probably see a happy, smiling young person, enjoying life. The reality is I was ill in each of these photos.
I’d either just had a diagnosis of bipolar, or was about to be diagnosed. You can’t see it, but I was all over the place mentally – either depressed or manic, it was relentless and I felt stuck in a never-ending loop. I don’t remember being stable for more than a week at a time. Mania made me confident and almost euphoric, but at the same time I was dealing with delusional thinking and spending thousands of pounds that I couldn’t really afford. Then there was the irritability and anger that made me act out and say terrible things. Crushing depression left me feeling hopeless and stuck. I was also struggling with bulimia and in no way was I taking care of myself physically. To be honest, it was a shitty time in my life. Somehow through it all, I was working full time, spent the weekends partying with friends and going to festivals and gigs. I never stopped and I was always, always, smiling.
By that point in my life I’d become an expert at pretending everything was fine, hiding behind a mask and smiling through the pain.
It’s obvious with hindsight what was about to happen; I crashed. I became deeply depressed – the worst I’d ever felt. I was suicidal and couldn’t work, couldn’t go out, could barely function enough to have a shower. It forced me to confront what I’d been going through for years and start searching for a reason why. The answer was bipolar, and that started me on a long road of learning and acceptance. It taught me I have to be honest. I couldn’t hide anymore.
It’s easy to see a smiling face and assume everything is totally ok. But it’s not enough to just assume. Someone you love could be hiding how much they’re struggling and you may never know.
So ask the difficult questions; tell them you’ve noticed signs that something isn’t quite right. Reach out to them if they suddenly become withdrawn. Listen like you’re really listening, mean it when you empathise with them and ask how you can help. The mask will slip, and how you act when it does will make a huge difference to that person.
I wish I’d been more open about how I was coping. I wish I’d told the truth back then. But here I am now, being authentic and honest. It’s never too late to stop hiding, to let people in. I’m always blown away by the support I have from family and friends. It’s not always easy for them, and we communicate our feelings to each other when mental illness makes life tough. I have lost friends but, the ones that really care will stay by your side.