Geeks Vs Loneliness: hiding in plain sight

Mental health problems are often classed as invisible illnesses. But how can you open up about them?

Hello and welcome to our Geeks Vs Loneliness spot, where we chat about bits and bobs that may be affecting you, or people around you. We do not profess to have a magical elixir to take life’s many problems away. We just hope that every now and then, we offer something here that may be of use.

This week, we’re handing over to the excellent Jo Challacombe, who wants to talk about hiding in plain sight. Over to Joanne…

Revealing your mental health condition in a world still marred with stigma and misunderstanding can be a challenging and potentially risky business. Sometimes, for our own wellbeing, it is necessary to hide in plain sight.

I join in with the crowd of new acquaintances at the party. I laugh at people’s jokes and indulge them with the expected level of flattery.

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I am not shy; I am not anxious or uncomfortable. I am dressed with confidence and I move to match – there is no sign that I am anything other than ordinary.

If I choose not to share my secret with my new-found friends, they would have no idea that for the past 14 years I have been battling with debilitating mental health.

I am hiding in plain sight.

The invisible illness

Mental health problems are known as invisible illnesses. You can’t see the symptoms on the body and they are not always evident in a person’s behaviour when they are feeling well.

I am fortunate enough to be amongst those who have periods of wellness where I can function without difficulties. This means I am able to choose to be open about my mental health with new people I meet, or not.

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Keeping my mental health issues private is not through shame or embarrassment, or a desire to be deceitful. It is because I have learnt that some people can feel uncomfortable or even afraid of me, once they know my ‘secret identity’.

Sometimes, hiding in plain sight is necessary for my protection from judgement or harm.

A personal story

I once worked in an office where my colleagues were afraid of my mental health.

I was open about my condition at my interview, hoping it would help explain my long absence from employment and was pleased when the management team seemed supportive and understanding. Just three weeks into my position however, I realised being open about my health was a mistake. My colleagues walked on eggshells around me.

I brushed it off as paranoia at first, but it soon became clear I was working with a team that had little information about mental health, and they just didn’t know what to do with me.

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Whenever I was overly quiet, I received emails from my panicked manager asking if it was because of my mental health and encouraging me to go home early.

I was scheduled into unnecessary ‘health checks’ with Occupational Health to see if I was still fit for work. Checks other employees weren’t asked to attend.

If I made a mistake with my work, my manager would think I wasn’t well and I was constantly questioned about how I was feeling throughout the day.

There was always an uneasy look in my colleagues’ eyes as they spoke to me and nobody sat with me in the staff cafeteria.

The sheer mention of my condition had people running around like headless chickens, prepping for damage control.

I was treated as if I were a ticking time bomb waiting to explode into a movie cliché of a psycho, frothing at the mouth to begin committing office homicide.

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I left the job after my probation ended and took away a valuable lesson – while it’s undeniably important to confide, ask for help and not try to deal with your mental health problems alone, it’s worth being careful about who you share with.

I believe my employers were well-meaning, but their lack of education about mental health led to them suffocating me, being overcautious and causing me a great deal of stress, not to mention making me feel alienated from the team. Perhaps if they had used the resources available at charities like Mind, there would have been a different outcome. I often wonder if I would still be in that job, had I chosen not to disclose my health issues.

Choosing wisely

Over the years I have had some painful ‘backlashes’ from entrusting my personal information to someone too soon, or to the wrong people. Many of these backlashes have had a serious impact on my life that have taken a long time to recover from. Today, I have a better sense of who seems open and informed enough to trust, and who is more likely to become afraid or negative towards me. I am wiser in my choices.

Having support around you from people who know and accept you completely is a wonderful and necessary thing for personal joy and healing, and it is not my intention to promote fear that every person you meet will have a negative reaction to your mental health.

However, while campaigners work hard to raise greater awareness about mental health to the public and in the workplace, we must sometimes judge our situation with foresight. If you feel as though you have to hide your mental health problems, consider confiding in an outside party such as The Samaritans until you feel you reach more supportive ground.

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Join in the conversation

How open are you about your mental health or difficulties with others? Are there times you feel safer ‘hiding in plain sight’? Come and chat with us in the comments below.

Thank you, as always, for reading…