I used to have a couple of suits hanging in my closet. One was oatmeal-colored. One was blue tweed. One was rust-colored. I had a couple of silk blouses and a jacket or two that I could wear over a dress.
I called them my “Respectable Business Lady” disguises.
At the time I was working at a 9-to-5 job where the dress code was pretty casual. Fridays were jeans days, not casual days. But every so often I had to go to meetings or business conventions, and for them, I needed the disguises. I was dressing to “fit in” and to give an impression that I was competent and stable.
I don’t honestly know if the suits worked as a disguise, but I made it through meetings and conventions fairly successfully (I think), if I was allowed to collapse afterward, at home or in a hotel room. I think the disguises were as much to remind me how to behave as they were to convince people that I was indeed respectable and a business lady.
Nevertheless, I can’t really buy into the “fake it till you make it” philosophy that has been so popular in self-help books, including those promoting business and entrepreneurship help. I had no notion of becoming a respectable business lady by wearing those suits. I was always going to be awkward and out of my league. I was only trying to pretend by using protective coloration.
The essence of “fake it till you make it” is practice. As the saying goes, you get good at what you practice. Unfortunately, you can’t practice not having bipolar or another disorder. You can practice assorted coping mechanisms and get better at doing them, but they’re a solution to some of the symptoms, not the disease.
I don’t think that “fake it till you make it” really applies to people with mental health problems. No matter how much or how long you fake it, your mental disorders are not going to disappear, though they may ease up at times. I certainly don’t think the business lady disguises made me go into remission for a week or a weekend. They were merely a coping mechanism and nothing I practiced enough to get really good at.
One danger of trying to fake your way through mental illness is that you can fall into the trap of what’s called “smiling depression.” When this happens, people don’t notice that you’re miserable because your smile makes it seem you are happy. It’s another disguise, but not a permanently successful one.
Once I was teaching a class, and several women gathered around another woman and asked her what was wrong. “I didn’t think it showed,” she said. “No, honey,” I said, “it leaks out around the eyes.” She wasn’t crying or anything like that, but we could all tell something was wrong, despite her smile. We offered her conversation and sympathy until she pulled herself together a bit.
I’ve never been able to school my face into any kind of smiling depression anyway. If some people have “resting bitch face,” I have “resting sad face.” I can’t count the number of times when I didn’t feel particularly sad, but someone asked me what I was sad about. Of course, I was probably suffering from low-grade depression, like a low-grade fever, but at the time I was undiagnosed and had no idea that I had a mental problem that caused me to look that way.
Basically, what I’m saying is that when you have a mental illness like bipolar disorder, you can fake being psychologically together for a while, but you can’t sustain it forever. Certainly not until you “make it.” After I took off my Respectable Business Lady disguise, I would revert to my original self, as far from a respectable business lady as ever. Sometimes it would take me days to recover enough to feel that I was functioning again on any sort of level.
I think it’s better, ultimately, to admit who you are and what you need rather than to try to disguise or fake it. Even if your authentic self is depressed and miserable, getting help for it is still better than trying to cover it up.