Bipolar Disorder & Pretending to Be Something I Am Not

Last Updated: 16 Apr 2021

Everybody pretends sometimes—glossing over ugly truths, exaggerating, even lying. That’s different from “bipolar pretending,” where acting like you’re “okay” is a matter of survival.

bipolar disorder pretending coping stress anxiety depression mania stigma

My bipolar disorder has impacted every part of my life. Specifically, from the time before I had my worst breakdown, which started my lost years, up until today. And I realize now that I had spent a lot of this time pretending with people outside of my immediate family.

Hiding the Truth about Depression, Mania, and Hospitalization

Before my breakdown, I pretended to be okay. Even when the bipolar depression made it almost impossible to function, and the mania included risky behavior.

After my breakdown, when I lost almost everything—my business, our savings, our house (which led to homelessness)—I was unable to work, spend time with family, or interact socially. But I certainly didn’t share that information with anyone.

When I lost the business and went broke, I pretended that I had sold the company.

When I could not work and was home with the kids, I said I was “spending quality time with my kids.”

When I saw somebody I knew and they asked me what I was doing—which was a fairly common occurrence—I told them I was “semi-retired.”

With extended family, I said I was “looking for new opportunities.” (I did the same with other acquaintances.)

I told people everything but the truth—that I live with bipolar disorder, had a severe breakdown and hospitalization, and that I was unable to hold a job. Heck, I was barely able to get up in the morning. And communicating with others was a serious struggle.

Anxiety, Fear, and Equating Bipolar with Failure

I remember being invited to my high school reunion during a very dark time. The thought of going was overwhelming, and it filled me with anxiety. This was my illness talking.

I wanted to go. I wanted to see people I knew and liked.

But I also knew, because of the embarrassment I felt and the social stigma, I did not want to share anything about my bipolar disorder. So, I wondered, What do I say instead? In the midst of my illness, being myself was not an option.

On the day of the reunion, I was anxious and afraid. It was all I could do to get in the car and drive to the location. When I got there, I sat in the parking lot.

Ten minutes became twenty.

Thirty minutes became an hour.

The anxiety and fear were overwhelming.

I was convinced that could not let people see who I really was. I was filled with dread and self-doubt. I kept thinking, I’m mentally ill.… I’m a failure.

Unable to Recognize the Strength of Fighting Back & Rebuilding after Relapse

In truth, my story was one of fighting my demons and rebuilding my life versus giving in and giving up. But I could not see that. I could not say that. I knew the stigma was real. I believed I would be avoided and ostracized if I shared my reality.

After an hour, I gathered all my energy and went in.

Upon entering, I felt strongly that I should not be there. I knew I was still not well. I was still shattered and broken.

So, I pretended. I pretended to be okay. I pretended to have sold my business and was now looking for new opportunities.

As I pretended, the distance between myself and my old friends grew. There was no connection because there was no honesty. I was in self-protection mode. I was in survival mode. And the time was a blur.

The Exhaustion of Pretending to Be “OK”

I lasted an hour before I had to escape. I slipped out quietly. And, when I got to the car, I just sat there.

Again, ten minutes became twenty, and thirty became an hour.

I was shaken, a shell of myself, and I unable to drive home. I needed quiet time to recover from an hour of pretending to be okay. So, I lay back in the seat and tried to just breathe….

I know that many people pretend at their high school reunions. They hide things. They exaggerate. Some people out-and-out lie.

But “bipolar pretending” is different. It’s not about bald-faced lying to save face or project a false image of success. It’s about life or death. It’s about survival.

It’s about making sure that no one sees inside of me. So that no one sees my fear, dread, and self-loathing.

Bipolar pretending is also exhausting. It takes every ounce of effort to look someone in the eye. To smile or speak with anything but what I call the “bipolar monotone voice.”

At the reunion, inside of myself, I felt small—very small.

I could have felt brave, facing my fears and persevering. But my bipolar disorder did not let me get anywhere near positive feelings.

I wanted to run away, from the time I got there until the time I left. Fighting that took all my strength.

Pretending—a Form of Coping with Bipolar … at a Price

Somehow, I got home. All the while filled with anxiety, dread, embarrassment, and self-doubt: What did I say to people? What did they think? Could they see my fear? Could they see my lies? Could they see that I was a shell of myself?

I don’t think I will ever go to another reunion, whether it be for school or an old job or old friends.

I am better now. I pretend less.

But there is still a lot of my life with bipolar disorder that I will never share with anyone but my closest family and friends.

Pretending was and is a form of coping. It’s a way to cope with living with this awful illness and the toll it has taken on my life. And to cope with the stigma and discrimination that exists.

But the pretending takes its own toll.

The price is in the memories. Memories of not being able to be who I truly am. Of being ashamed. Of not being who I had hoped I would be—and who I know I could have been—if the demons of bipolar were not a part of my life.

Originally posted December 22, 2020

About the author
Dave, who lives with bipolar disorder and severe anxiety, is the author of the Amazon bestseller and award-winning OMG That’s Me! Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and More…. Recently, Book Authority ranked OMG as one of the “Best Bipolar Disorder Books of All Time.” Dave is currently the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate in Washington County, Oregon. His blog posts have been read by over 800,000 people, and his follow-up, OMG 2, is in the works. Dave lives just outside of Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Heather; daughter, Meghan; and grandsons, Van and Bourdain.

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