Written by Clare.
I am fascinated by the complex relationship between truthfulness and mental illness. I often think about my own troubled adolescence, in which truth-telling was difficult because I’d trained myself to lie about how I was feeling. If I said I was feeling fine, then I could avoid the help I needed because I didn’t want to be different, singled out, and stigmatized.
There is a tendency in high-functioning and ambitious young adults to compartmentalize various aspects of their lives. As a teenager, I was a good student, diligent, thoughtful and over-prepared. Yet basic functionality was a full time job for me because I was leading a different life in secret that absorbed most of my energy. My anxiety was so powerful that I struggled to have normal social interactions and to take care of myself in basic ways. I enjoyed a delusional sense of exceptionality, which meant in practice that I did not ask for help although I suffered from what I now know to be a very extreme form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
The lying was usually about how I was doing, but sometimes I lied about other things, too. Dishonesty gave me a sense of control of the world, of the picture I was painting. With a lie tucked into my pocket, I could be the director of the fantasies I spun on my terms only, which felt good in a way because on the inside I was powerless. I’d be doing okay and then out of the blue, the darkness would come, and I’d feel as though the sky was falling and the world around me was melting and there was no point in anything. Worst of all, God, in my rear view window, was doing nothing to stop it.
How often do we ask our friends in passing, “How are you?” Why do they always say they’re doing well? That can’t always be true. In college I ran into a dear friend who gave me another answer, “Actually, I’m doing horribly. I’m having trouble completing my thesis and I’m desperately lonely and all I ever want to do is sleep.” When he told me that, I remember feeling nauseous and irritated. Why? He had broken the rules. If you say you are fine and someone believes you, then in some other dimension you are actually fine, just fine. Control is paramount for functionality inside the brain of someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder. But why?
My father passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was young. I remember learning what the word “terminal” meant in a medical sense in the fourth grade. My father sometimes brought surprises home from work. He was unpredictable, and a little magic. Once it was two cockatiels in a little box with holes. But then one day, he came home with jaundice.
I spent a lot of time with my father during his two-year-long illness. I would sneak him foods he was not allowed to eat, like soft chocolate chip cookies. I’d slide him an O’Doul’s when he was in a playful mood. I would use his typewriter to compose odd letters from Pluto and place them around his work place. He would let me sit up on the counter and experiment with different liquids from the cabinet. I wanted to make him an elixir, something to fix him. He did not want to die and I did not want him to die and sometimes that felt like all we needed. To this day, I can’t listen to Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car” without thinking about my beautiful dad, driving far out of town to let his homing pigeons out with me in the adult passenger seat. He was laughing at my silly kid jokes and telling me that he was too strong to die, and I knew in my heart that in some realm what he said was true. I remember feeling elated when my usually physically reserved dad put his arm around me. I remember him squeezing me tight and resting his head on mine.
During my father’s illness, I prayed all the time for his health to return. I tried to reason with God, saying I’d walk up Pikes Peak with no supplies like Zebulon Pike if that would save my magic father. I stopped eating normally. When my father was ill, I was ill, too, but I kept my illness in a tiny box far away from the people who loved me. In my private world, I was breaking into a million pieces, but I wanted to put on a brave face. I lied to the childhood therapist and told her that I was fine and that I was ready to let him go. I believed that if I insisted that I was okay, then the rest of my life could progress. I would do well on the SATs and go to a good college, for instance. I remember when he died and we got the call and my mother’s friend, a Carmelite monk, insisted that I let her hold me. I almost felt assaulted by the gesture because it did not happen on my own terms.
I am talking about dishonesty during adolescence because our teenage years are the time when we learn how to function in the real world. Our frontal lobes are developing and we are learning habits that will carry into our adult lives. We should be more careful with ourselves. Most of all, we should tell the truth. If you learn to be dishonest about your health, that behavior will continue. The inclination towards dishonesty will persist. And dishonesty is fatal. If I could say one thing to my adolescent self, it would be to tell the truth. Let people who love you know. Take the suggestions of mental health professionals, but be discerning about what sort of system of recovery is right for you. Say it! Scream out, “Help me because I am sick!”
So what is my own truth? I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It is virtually impossible for me to get through the day without the pang of hopelessness. But this time, at 27 years old, I am properly medicated for my illness. I have a regimen of pills that I take every morning. I pray because when I tell the truth, God is on my side. I’ve abandoned the notion that I can control other people. I’ve embraced the reality of my mental illness. With a hodgepodge of support systems, I live happily, for the most part, with God’s presence.
So what happens when you let go and ask for help? Well, I can tell you in all honesty that truth allows you to discover who you really are. You don’t have to fight anymore. Tell the truth. Let the world know. There is no reason to be ashamed of a mental illness. Truth-telling is integral to recovery.