Covering is a unique trick-of-the-trade known to anyone who has been chronically ill–mentally or otherwise. It is the art of straightening ones shoulders and schooling ones features to show that, no, really, we’re fine, so please don’t fire us or ask us to explain what’s going on. In short, we’re actors donning the mask of normalcy.
The first psychiatrist I met with outside of the mental hospital called it my “manic happy cheerleader face.” Julia Kovach touches on the subject in her post Being Bipolar, where she describes reactions to her diagnosis:
And because people don’t understand what they can’t see and sometimes say stupid things; like I look so normal that I must be mistaken. I guess I don’t act crazy enough. Ha ha. And if they should get a glimpse? They run. Fast and far.
The brilliant Ari Flynn, who suffers from chronic depression and on whose blog I first heard the term, offers a more complete description:
Telling your friends to treat you like everything’s normal is equivalent to playing a never-ending round of the Elephant Game (don’t think of an elephant — whoops, you lose!), so the only way for you to avoid that particular soul-sucking bog is to learn how to control how much information other people get about your internal state. It’s something nobody ever really talks about, but the bipolars and chronic depressives are all nodding to themselves — do it long enough, and you get very, very good at it. You have to; it’s a survival skill.
After a while it gets to the point where being able to cosplay as a functional human being is the only thing you feel like you can do even kind of right.
They are absolutely right. It is easier to pretend everything is fine than to explain why you had to limp to the shower due to fibromyalgia or why you bought $700 worth of chocolate in one go. Anything you say is by no means the complete picture, and often won’t alleviate your pain. The ability to cover is a hard-learned skill, due to fear of stigma, rejection, or unwillingness to overwhelm other people with your own suffering.
Additionally, this role is draining to play. We all have different strengths and weakness, but constantly monitoring speech and behavior is exhausting for anyone. Under stress, the performance breaks down. With regards to mood episodes, the lack of self-awareness during mania and the lack of grooming during depression are strong indicators that the mask is slipping.
Celebrities like Stephen Fry and Brooke Shields have started paving the way for discussions about mental illnesses. The more we all talk about bipolar to those who have it and those who don’t, the more people may understand and stick around. Building a community of peers is the best way to counteract this strenuous protective mechanism.
You’re not alone in hiding, so why not surround yourself with people who understand that burden?
When do you find that you cover the most?