…and appear relatively functional and civil to others?
Alright, let’s get a couple of points out of the way before I dive into this. This post will include a lot of theorycraft and rationalization based on the way I understand the Disorder and my social dysfunction as a High-Functioning Autistic. As an HFA, I’ve spent a lot of time observing people in social situations to learn how to function “correctly”. Read “correctly” as- in a way that won’t be upsetting or alienating in social circumstances. This post will also assume the person is generally a decent person, but becomes awful when they get unwell. Then there are plenty of people who are abusive jerks who also happen to be mentally ill. That’s a whole different ballgame really.
So let’s start with a fictitious, example scenario…
Jenny is an undiagnosed Bipolar with a mildly chaotic history, one that she has taken pains to keep secret out of shame and fear of being stigmatized. Jenny was lucky enough to complete college and secured a management position with a corporation. She’s married to James and they have two children together. The unwell swings Jenny experiences during her life have largely been manageable, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Disorder gets worse with age when left untreated.
What started off as mostly manageable unwellness has steadily degenerated to the point where the kids are afraid of Jenny and James has no idea who this woman is that he married. When she’s well? She’s loving, happy, and wonderful. When she’s unwell? Everyone is on pins and needles to avoid setting her off. As she escalates she becomes verbally abusive, raging, and intimidating.
Jenny is slowly coming apart and the people that catch the worst of it are her friends and family members. At work and socially, she seems to maintain fairly well. She still makes snide comments or picks at people in an aggressive way, but one would not really peg it as symptoms of “unwellness” unless they understood the entirety of Jenny’s life and history.
A Matter of Familiarity
Why do Jenny’s loved ones, friends, and family get the worst of her? The simple answer is familiarity. People do not act the same way in front of strangers or in the workplace as they do with those they know. Each of us has masks we wear when we are talking to certain groups of people.
When she’s at work, Jenny knows she has a professional demeanor to try and maintain. She may be coming across as short, moody, irritable, and impatient. I feel like this has a lot to do with maintaining that work veneer. Let’s face it; most of us would get tossed out on our ass if we acted out what was in our heads while in the work place. Jenny is actively working to maintain the facade, not realizing how much more difficult it actually is because it just seems like a normal part of her day. Her coworkers and general friends are more likely to shrug and go about their day, thinking she’s just moody.
But when she gets home? She’s coming back to her place of security and unwinding. A place where she is not expected to keep up masks. So the Disorder pours out. Being undiagnosed and dealing with the Disorder for so long, she may not be able to recognize that her responses and reactions are irrational. An undiagnosed or uninformed Bipolar doesn’t have the knowledge base to actually identify which of their actions may indicate unwellness and which are them just being angry or short.
It takes a lot of work and energy to actively manage instability. Jenny may be seething at work, wanting to tear off her coworker’s head for some slight- real or imagined. But she doesn’t, because she’s not so far gone that she is still able to realize that she can’t just do that in the work place. And then of course comes the problems with being too far along. Maybe she verbally lays into him and winds up fired or written up for it because the unwellness slipped past her mask.
At home is an entirely different story. There are still things that we keep under wraps even with friends and family members; but after spending all day trying to maintain that facade at work, it comes off because it is so much energy and work. So if Jenny, Jr. spills some milk; the rational response of “Clean up after yourself” instead pours out of her mouth with hate. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You can’t do anything right. If you can’t fucking pour milk right then you don’t deserve it.” And throws the open milk against the wall.
Does escalation make this behavior acceptable? No. But if the person is undiagnosed, how are they supposed to realize how awful they are acting? Or that there is even an option to act differently? A person who lives with this as their “normal” doesn’t necessarily have the context to understand just how awful they are acting until they balance off enough to see clearly.
A Question Of Perception
I have touched on perception a bit previously. Perception is at the heart of Bipolar Disorder and managing it. We nutbags have to understand how the Disorder warps and distorts the way we perceive life. To function through unwell cycles while you are around friends and family members, the Bipolar needs to try and keep some of their masks up so they are actively thinking about what they are saying and doing while unstable.
As someone who has been diagnosed for about six years, gone through cognitive behavioral therapy, and regularly monitors my mental state- I would look at the above situation very differently. My brain may be screaming at me to tell the little fuck to get the hell out of my way- but all that’s coming out of my mouth is “Clean up your mess.” with me walking away. Why do I know I’m hypomanic? Because I identified it days ago through my physical symptoms of not being able to sleep with no tiredness, arrogance, and irrational irritation. So I know that I need to have my mask on and my defenses up so I don’t tear down the people around me.
Someone that is not diagnosed does not have that benefit. Even if they are, they may still not get it exactly right. It’s a tough mask to try and keep on constantly because it does require a ton of mental and emotional energy. Wearing a version of the mask we wear in public, dealing with coworkers or strangers, can help prevent serious damage to personal relationships.
Understanding that we need to don that mask to minimize the damage to our loved ones comes from education and introspection. If you are mentally ill; continue to build your knowledge base about your mental illness. If you are a loved one; encourage your loved one to research and continue to build their knowledge so they can develop this understanding.
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