Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia
Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I’ve always been a terrible liar, ever since my mom caught me in a fib and embarrassed me in front of all my friends. Growing up, I also never got away with untruths, or even selective fact sharing.
I’d either get caught outright, or I’d crumbled under my parents’ cross examination. They could always interrogate me and learn that, yes, there would be boys at the party and no, there wouldn’t be any parents in attendance.
Once, I believed that my inability to lie was a virtue — that truthfulness made me better than others.
Until I learned how to tell the biggest lie of my life: that I’m normal, capable, and definitely not suffering with a mental illness.
I told that lie every day, to everyone I met. Even when I stopped telling the lie, stopped hiding my mental illness, I found even more intricate levels of subterfuge.
I’m a liar, and I don’t believe I’ll ever stop.
Starting with the truth
The first person I ever told about my depression diagnosis was my dad. He was the most overprotective person in the world. No — even more than you’re thinking. We’re talking about a person who drove 80 miles on a Sunday night because my cat knocked the phone off the hook (many years before cell phones) and he couldn’t get in touch with me.
I was 22 when I told him. At first, I thought I shouldn’t tell him that I had a chronic condition because it’d cause him to worry about me even more. Also, when he got stressed, he would treat me like a child and raise my level of anxiety. I waited to tell him about my condition when I was well enough to handle both my self-care and my dad’s potential anxiety-inducing reaction.
Until then, I pretended that everything was normal. I figured I was keeping myself healthy.
Lie #1: “What, these antidepressants?”
As my depression worsened over the years, the untruths I told people to keep up my façade of health got more and more complicated.
At some point, I told my closest friends about my depression, and they were supportive. But I was less forthcoming in my intimate relationships.
Mostly, I just hid my antidepressants and said that my weekly therapy appointments were different types of meetups or obligations altogether.
At one point, I was in a relationship with a man named Henry and realized I’d lied about my entire life situation.
My reality: I’d taken leave from work to go to an outpatient program for my depression, and I still hadn’t been cleared to return back to work. Eventually, the timeline on the Family and Medical Leave Act expired, and I still wasn’t cleared to work. I couldn’t hold a train of thought or concentrate for more than a few hours a day. My job wasn’t held for me and I was terminated.
The story I told Henry was that I’d been laid off (not exactly a lie) because my company was restructuring (something that actually happened and was covered in the news, it just hadn’t actually affected me). I perpetuated that untruth throughout the relationship, through my recovery, and even getting a new job.
I believe that starting the relationship off on a lie kept me from connecting more emotionally with Henry, even though we dated for a year. I always knew that I was lying to him about our beginning, and about my depression, and that made it easier to keep the rest of my feelings bottled away.
It wasn’t the best choice for a romantic relationship, but I felt that I needed protection at the time.
Lie #2: “I was laid off from work.”
The lie about being let go — not fired — eventually became a part of my resume. Every time I interviewed, I told the story of being laid off.
I had a similar experience in my next job, with a medical leave turning into my position being eliminated. The difference was that at first, I only took a month off because of paralyzing anxiety, though I told my boss that I was having panic attacks. I felt like panic was more relatable and more “normal” than anxiety.
When I returned to work, my boss had reassigned most of my work to other people. My duties had shrunk to almost nothing, which felt like punishment for taking time off.
One day, the division head berated me for making a mistake, a single calculation error in a sales presentation. I felt like my boss had told him that my leave had been for mental and emotional reasons.
I’d been an exemplary employee but for this one error, but the way the division head spoke to me triggered my anxiety, my depression, and my fears of being “less than” because of my disease.
The workplace stress drove me to take a leave of indeterminate time, during which I was hospitalized and learned that I had bipolar disorder.
I never returned to that job, and I’ll always believe that if I hadn’t been as honest about my emotional state, my workplace situation would have been less antagonistic and less detrimental to my disease.
Lie #3: “I don’t need help. I’m fine.”
Recovering from bipolar took longer than my previous recoveries. I took more medications, had more symptoms to manage, and felt like I didn’t know where to start.
I stayed in a psychiatric hospital for over two weeks to stabilize my condition. My father asked if he should come visit from Las Vegas. I told him no, that I didn’t need his help, I was doing fine.
The truth was that I wasn’t doing fine, but I didn’t want him to see how sick I was.
I also didn’t want him to see the other patients in the hospital. I knew that the worrier in him would equate the lethargy of some of the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) patients or the erratic violence of some of the people with schizophrenia, with my condition. I wanted him to stay as optimistic as possible about my prognosis.
I felt like if he saw me at my lowest point, he’d never not feel the pain of wishing he could take away mine.
I’ve been hospitalized four times and my dad has never seen me there.
It takes effort to pretend to be getting better — and to have my relatives run interference — so that he doesn’t worry about me to death, but it’s worth it to me.
Lie #4: Not telling the whole truth to protect myself
By now, I’ve learned to live with the lies I tell.
My health is my first priority — not telling the whole truth.
Even though I write about my mental illness under my own name, I hold a great many things back from all but a few friends with mood disorders who understand my struggles.
Hopefully, I can keep working as a writer, a field in which my experiences with mental health are an asset rather than a liability. Hopefully stigma against people with mental illness will decline, so that I’d be able to work in a corporate job if I wanted, without my Google results betraying my history of illness.
And maybe, someday, those same internet search outcomes won’t drive away my likely suitors, though I’ve learned to talk about my experience with bipolar on the first date and let what happens happen.
Until then, I’m going to keep covering up certain details of my disease, for the sake of my loved ones, and to protect myself from additional pain.
My health is my first priority — not telling the whole truth.
Tracey Lynn Lloyd lives in New York City and writes about mental health and all the intersections of her identity. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Establishment, and Cosmopolitan. One of her essays was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. You can read more of her work at traceylynnlloyd.com. If you see her in a coffee shop with a laptop, send over a cold brew.