“I’d never have guessed you had a mental illness.” 

How often have you heard that one? 

Or how about, “you don’t look like someone with a mental illness.”

As we consumers know, there is a great deal of hiding in our world of lived experience. Hiding our symptoms from family and friends, our social impairment from our community and peers, and our diagnoses from employers and colleagues. I’ve tried to hide from myself many times: through denial, addictive behaviours or immersing myself in anything else other than my own crap. But inevitably, I have to come back to reality. 

I recently facilitated an event for a women’s group run by my local Mental Health Community Support Service Provider. It was my first time leading the group and, while most of those participating knew this, there were a couple of new people. Halfway through the day, one of the newbies asked me something about the service provider and I told them to ask one of the workers as I’d not a clue about her answer. “Oh,” she said, very surprised, “I thought you were one of the workers. I’d never have guessed....” At the end of the day she approached me and asked, “how do you do it? How do you make others see you as normal?” My answer to her and anyone else is that I’ve learned to ‘fake it until I make it’.

It’s a paradox philosophy and, when my GP told me about it a few years ago, I thought it was just a catchphrase or idiom. But apparently, it is a sound concept recognised in the treatment of depression and other mental illnesses. It is said to come from a technique derived from a psychological theory called Adlerian (named after Alfred Adler). Called Acting as if, therapists ask the client to presume a successful result of a not yet attempted action. And while I enjoy a good theory or two, that’s a bit TMI (too much information) for me. 

More simply, I relate better the explanation that it is to “go through the routines of life as if one were enjoying them, despite the fact that initially it feels forced, and continue doing this until the happiness becomes real. An example of a positive feedback loop.” Thanks Wiki. 

More important to me is the “how do I do that?” On days when all I can do is get out of bed, look at the dirty dishes from yesterday and go back to bed, how do I pretend that I’m doing ok? I learned that on the days when I feel like I have to put on a mask and I can...I do. On the days that I can’t, I don’t. And that has to be ok for everybody, including me. 

Pretending I’m ok seems to make others feel better and this reflects back on me and I feel better. And so it goes. With more than 20 years' experience I’ve become very good at it. The technique does work for me and I can’t discredit the outcomes. So do what you need to do to get by, fake it if it helps, but I do so wish we didn’t live in a world where we have to fake it in the first place.

Fiona Browning