It’s not easy being crazy.
It’s even harder when it’s a secret.
Secrets have weight. Some secrets are relatively light: “I’m the one who ate the last piece of cake that one time” or “I’m actually three pounds heavier than what I told you.” Some secrets are heavy. Having bipolar disorder is a heavy secret.
Not many people know my heavy secret. I’ve changed my last name for this blog so that my students and friends won’t stumble upon it (and really, “Hillboro” is a cool last name anyway. Let me pretend). Keeping my secret is a good thing for now, maybe forever, but it comes with its challenges. One of them is that people say really stupid crap that they would never say if they knew I have a mental illness. They make jokes about moody people being bipolar. They joke about cutting themselves and killing themselves when it is so, so not funny. I’ve had multiple nurse friends talk about their mentally ill patients like they are sub-human, when I don’t see why those patients have any less worth than their otherwise-ill peers. It’s strange. I think people would be more sensitive if they knew, but it makes me see the world through new eyes. Did I ever make those kinds of jokes? Is that how I viewed people with mental illness? I certainly hope not, but I also don’t remember. It’s tough to remember what life was like a decade ago, before I started down this road.
Last week, I was riding with my brother-in-law to Ann Arbor for something he had to do for dental school. He needed someone to ride along, and I said sure. My in-laws are 89% cool, but none of them know my secret. They’re the kind of family that doesn’t talk about problems. We talk about the weather and recipes and baseball games. It’s the all-American family, and I don’t want to wreck the magic by having a mental illness. My husband is a great support, but I think his family would be horrified and completely lost on what to do with that information. Anyway, they’re all in the dark.
While I rode with Jake to Ann Arbor, I asked how his girlfriend is doing in nursing school (she is scheduled to graduate next year). He said she’s doing fine and that she’s working in a psych ward rotation this quarter. I immediately wished I hadn’t asked, because I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear anything he was about to say. I couldn’t completely shut down and stop talking, so I said, “Oh. Ummm…how’s that?”
“It’s hard,” he said.
“I can imagine,” I replied, staring out the window. I was suddenly very interested in the highway. I wanted this conversation shut down NOW. Jake elaborated on his previous statement even thought I hadn’t asked him to continue.
“She says it’s mostly sad,” he said. “Like, her first day there, she worked on someone who looked just like her mom. She realized that these patients are real people, you know? Just like us – with families and dreams and stuff. Most of her patients are voluntarily admitted. They’re not dangerous or anything – they’re just sick. It’s like any other sickness, but it’s in their brain. People don’t understand that, which bugs her. And me. People need to get that it’s just a sickness. They need help just like someone who has liver disease. But it has to be so scary to have an illness in your brain, because you can’t even think straight. Wouldn’t that be scary? I hope that never happens to us.”
“Me neither,” I automatically said, even though that probably would have been a great time to say, “Well, actually… I sort of do know what that feels like…” I was too stunned. No one – no one – has ever said anything like that about mental illness to me. Especially someone who doesn’t know I have one. Occasionally people will say encouraging things when they already know my secret, but then I always feel like maybe they’re just saying that because they feel obligated.
I was embarrassed to find my eyes filling with tears because I was so-freaking-happy to hear someone say what Jake just said. I wanted to hug him. I was glad he was driving and couldn’t see me getting all emotional in the passenger seat. I immediately texted Andy and asked, “Does Jake know the secret?” I figured maybe this was Jake’s way to try to get me to open up about a secret he already knew. No one could actually hold that logical of an opinion about mental illness, could they? Andy texted back, “No, I told you I wouldn’t tell anyone, and I haven’t. Why – did he say something stupid?” I laughed because Andy immediately thought his brother said something dumb.
“No,” I texted back. “What he said was perfect.”