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MENTAL ILLNESS, TELL OR HIDE IT?

This video edit, Anne Hathaway couldn’t have said it better. Take note at 6 minutes, 19 seconds!

“I am impossible to be around. I can barely answer the phone…unreliable as a friend…in some ways, probably the worst friend you could ever have…”


Before I was diagnosed with bipolar depression I had a good friend, Tommy*. I knew we were very different, he didn’t. He was incredibly financially secure, responsible, and seemed to have the perfect life. After his divorce, he purchased a beautiful home in an upscale neighborhood. His home held the title of being the largest home in the entire neighborhood, and somehow Tommy seemed to make sure everyone knew it. It wasn’t like he would just blurt it out but somehow everyone knew it. It took a while for me to come to terms that Tommy was unconsciously arrogant, or maybe just ignorant to the fact that everyone wasn’t like him.


During this time, my life was a mess and being financially secure and responsible was not an option for me. I was in fact, financially unsecure, irresponsible, living paycheck to paycheck (when I had a job), and trying to hide my car from every tow truck I saw. How did Tommy and I remain friends if we were so different? The short answer is I was an expert at creating any persona to adapt to my current situation. If I was in a low period, I knew it was just a matter of time before I would be a business owner, publisher, consultant, or star employee again. It was inevitable, so I just had to play the part until I found a new destination


Tommy had no idea that when we went out for a drink, or a bite to eat, that I was secretly living like Bernie Madoff and running a huge Ponzi scheme. My life was a house of cards, and I was shuffling money around like a seasoned three card monte scammer, and I was my own “mark.”

One night, we were hanging out at Tommy’s house, sitting on his $2,000 couch, and drinking some exclusive whiskey that he found while on one of his vacations. As we were talking, the conversation went from his whisky collection to his son’s new girlfriend. Tommy told me that he had recently been invited to his son’s girlfriends house to meet her parents. He said her family was very ‘normal’ and appeared to be a loving, supportive family. Instead of just leaving it there, he went on to say, that he believed they didn’t have money saved and lived month to month. He continued to tell me that her father was a contractor who built decks and porches. I was thinking what could have been his concern about a hard-working man, that may not live in an overpriced home, or drive a car that 80% of the population can’t afford. I remember starting to feel differently about Tommy.


The more he kept griping of his confusion about why her father couldn’t just didn’t do more work or figure out a way to make more money, the more aggravated I got. Even though we had been friends for a couple years at the time, he didn’t know anything about who I was at the time. Looking back, it’s probably better that he didn’t, because knowing what I know now, I would have been no better than the father of his son’s girlfriend to Tommy. I’m certainly not saying that Todd was wrong for saying those things to me, as it was just two guys hanging out and sharing stories. However, what did bother me was the fact that his takeaway from meeting her parents for the first time was his disappointment with the father, without knowing anything about him or his background.


If Tommy only knew! Most of my adult life, including the two years of our friendship, I was not living month to month, not even week to week. I would have taken day to day, but it was worse for me, I lived minute by minute. Is Todd one of the people in my life that I chose to share who I really am now and who I was then? Absolutely not.


It’s a new day! Hopefully a new week, month, year, and lifetime. All the stages of my self-defined acronym A.R.R.O.W. have been achieved, I became Aware I was bipolar, Recognized something was wrong, Realized I needed help, took Ownership of my illness, and found out Where to go for help. It is important to note that without the help of a true friend, I would have never made it to stage one and probably wouldn’t be here to tell my story.


I believe there are two important categories of all mental illnesses, awareness, and unawareness. We either know we are living with it, or we are unaware. My problems arose because not only did I not know I was bipolar, but I thought my life normal. So going through the highs and lows, having to start my life over every couple of years, living paycheck to paycheck, making risky decisions, and alienating everyone in my life were all justified in one way or another in my head.


Once I started receiving treatment and the realization set in that my life had been anything but normal, fear that I would not be able to make it in the ‘real world’ set in. I had already wasted 35 years of my life and nothing to show for it, at least that was what I thought. I wasn’t sure that I would ever adjust to my new medically and psychologically everchanging mind. Each pill made me feel differently, and part of the process is finding the right mix of medications that work the best for my body. In essence, my brain was an experimental chemistry set trying everything and anything to achieve a certain output that I wasn’t even sure how it should feel.


The last stage I continually work on is “Where to go for help”. Firstly, I know that I’m going to need support, especially since no matter how well medications and therapy work, my brain is still going to have the ups and downs. They shouldn’t be debilitating like before, but I am still going to have mood swings and desires to make irrational decisions, or act in a risky manner. People close to me need to understand who I am and to be prepared for these down times. I often ask myself, why would anyone want to maintain a friendship with me, there is no benefit other than the possibility of being let down again. I don’t know the answer to this, other than certain people are loyal, caring, empathetic, and supportive. These are the people you tell!


The reality is many people that you believe fit this mold and will be there for you through thick and thin, won’t. I had many people that were like family to me when they thought I was “normal”, at least their perception of what normal was. These are people that I anticipated telling who I really was, and couldn’t wait for true acceptance of me, the real me. The reactions were similar, and I was mostly met with signs of relief and promises of support. Sadly, most of these cathartic conversations were the last, and there were no wellness check-ins, no questions about my mental health, nothing. They didn’t care to know anything about what I went through nor what moving forward would look like.


Then there was my Michelle who was the person who realized was in trouble in November 2019 and forced me to seek help. She constantly checked in and offered any resources she could think of. When I told my sister and mother, neither of them had any idea what my life was like and like many others, just thought I was lost. Their responses, and support continue to be a driving force in my current healthy mental state. In addition to listening to me and asking questions to truly understand, they both offered me financial assistance, including a place to live while I went through the treatment process and rebuilding my life.

The toughest conversations I had were with my three daughters. We all learned a lot about each other, including how much I had hurt them and the mental damage I caused them since they were toddlers. Even typing this brings tears to my eyes, it was that bad. They understood me, and I understood them. We all had a lot of work to build trust, and I couldn’t be a prouder dad of how they handled the situation and truly wanted to learn about my condition, and most importantly gave me the chance to show them how much I love them and introduce them to the “real” me.


My childhood friend, Phil, who I have no idea why he still answers my calls. We were best friends since middle school, grew up a few houses apart, and there is nobody to this day that I have had made more memories with. I could write 100 pages of all the crazy experiences we shared, and it would not even be close to the total number of stories we created. When I told Phil who I was, I immediately knew that there were no variations of who he was. True, loyal, dependable, reliable, caring, empathetic, and there is no question that I have no better friend.


Just as important as anyone, is my girlfriend Michelle, who I met a few months after my life started over. Even though she never got to experience the old me, she does get glimpses of my ups, downs, and mood swings. It is not easy for her to deal with, but the fact that she is aware of who I am and has the character and traits to put our love for each other on the forefront. She is a saint because I know even with the medication and therapy, there are not a lot of people who wouldn’t put up with me!


Choose who you tell, be honest and straightforward, and don’t expect everyone to understand or accept the new you. On the bright side, I feel relieved to know that my friends and family who stuck with me are genuine, and that is all you should want in your life!






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