A look at the reasons we wear bipolar masks.
“Scott is the fictional version of me. The real me is much darker,” I told my group of friends, my bipolar mask slipping a little.
A palpable silence followed my words.
How did I get here? I asked myself. Oh, yeah, bipolar and the masks I wear.
How It Started
A few of my friends were chatting on Zoom one Saturday morning. The conversation was full of laughs and encouraging quips. In time, it turned to alter egos, and one friend introduced us to Fern, her Kentucky Mountains alter ego. Fern is a little nutty and had us all in stitches. If you ever need to go on a long road trip, Fern is the companion you want with you. She makes everything colorful and exciting.
Fern is perfect for me, because humor is my go-to bipolar mask.
One friend, Jack, is new to the group. He was interested in learning as much as he could about each of us, and went around the virtual room asking each of us about our alternate personalities.
When it was my turn, he asked about my secret identity.
I told him, “While I’ve played with nicknames over the years, I can’t say I have an alter ego.”Start Today!
“Come on,” he chided me. “Who is the fictional version of you? I’m sure you have one.”
For the next few minutes, we joked about a fictional version of me named Diego. I don’t know why Diego. It’s a name that’s stuck with me since I wrote a short story with that name several years ago. Diego is a dark fiction tale I wrote as a way to process the sudden death of my dog and the end of a narcissistic friendship. You can read it here.
My friends decided Diego is the playful side of me, the one who loves to take those road trips with Fern. Jack now calls me Diego every time we talk.
Jack wanted more, though. He refused to quit until I revealed my truth.
“Honestly?” I started. “If anything, Scott is the fictional version of me. The real me is much darker.”
It was a joke, but also a painful reality of having a mental illness. Too often, we fight to put up a persona rather than showing people the reality of our mental state. It’s the masks bipolar makes us wear.
I have bipolar disorder – rapid cycling type 1 to be exact. Diagnosed in 1995, I have decades of fighting this monster under my belt. Looking back, I can see how bipolar touched my life since I was about 10 years old.
Bipolar is more than a diagnosis. It tarnishes everything. The exact opposite of rose-colored glasses, the bipolar brain can distort everything you hear, see, and think.
This distorted world makes everything a trial. Even when you have the gift of being stable, you question everything. I examine every word of every conversation. It’s not a choice. It just happens. My brain analyzes everything I see, every gesture, every facial expression, trying to find hidden meanings.
In some ways, this hyper vigilance is a gift. I pick up on others’ feelings fast and often feel like a human lie detector. I may not know why I think you’re lying, but I’m almost always right.
The inability to trust what I see in the world around me makes my social anxiety worse and stops me from spending time with people. But it’s only one reason I wear a bipolar mask. The other is my tendency to share too much.
There’s another reason people with bipolar put on a facade. We’re often chronic over-sharers. Ask us a simple question and get a detailed life story. Asking me directions to the local grocery could devolve into a tale of how I fell from a jungle gym in third grade, but my pants didn’t fall with me. That’s a story for another day.
Mentally healthy people don’t understand. Bipolar inserts a darkness into your mind, an insidious enemy that makes you think about death and self-destruction. Proper mental health care can keep these dark forces in check, but not obliterate them.
Sharing that darkness can be too much for people. If you want to bring a conversation to a screeching halt, throw out the phrase, “The last time I was in a mental hospital,” or worse yet, “When I tried to kill myself…”
Panic will spread through the room faster than a lightning strike.
Those of us with bipolar live in an alternate reality. We know healthy-minded people can’t understand, so we keep those parts of ourselves hidden. We put on a bipolar mask.
Still, authenticity is a significant part of a healthy life. It’s essential to accept who you are, including your bipolar disorder, in order to live your best life. It’s a balancing act requiring constant fine tuning.
At that same time, masks are important. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that masks offer some protection.
If you wear bipolar masks around your friends and family, that’s okay. You don’t have to share all of you with every person. Some people you know don’t have the depth to understand you and your illness, but don’t let that stop you from sharing anything.
It’s too easy to build a wall and keep the best of you locked behind it. You may feel secure in your stone castle, but you’re missing out on valuable life experiences.
Instead, try to remove your mask gradually. Share insignificant things, such as your experiences with long-term insomnia or chronic overspending. Watch for a response. If the person is interested in discussing things further, reveal a little more. Just be careful not to open the floodgates and wash them away in your verbal tsunami.
Wearing masks is part of living with bipolar disorder. Using them wisely will help you live your best life.
Who is Diego? Likely, he’ll become another mask I wear, but I now know who’s behind the mask. You’ll find your way, too.
Until next time, keep fighting.