Today I ran into my old figure skating coach. She was my first coach some 24 years ago and while it was a delight to see her, it was also incredibly awkward. The thing is, whether I’m running into an old acquaintance or meeting new people, I’m never quite sure what to say.
Somehow, no matter how light I try to keep it, no matter how minimal I try to be with the information, when I get to talking to someone, I generally end up having to tell a few lies or at least half truths. Because after asking “How have you been?” no one wants to hear “well, I developed 4 autoimmune diseases, 12+ chronic health conditions, had multiple surgeries, I’m on disability, I was homeless, and I’ve had multiple suicide attempts resulting in stints in psych wards.”
It gets even more uncomfortable when they ask “how is your family?” and the only thing to say in return is that “it’s complicated” or when pushed “I no longer talk to my family” which is far better than the “I left home in high school because it wasn’t safe for me any more and my mother knew and did nothing.”
And if we navigate those mine fields, then the question becomes “what are you doing now?” The easiest is to say that I’m taking time off due to health complications (and I can still point to the scar from my spine surgery) and that I do consulting on health policy. Because if I say anything about being a lawyer, many assumptions are made. And if later it comes out that I don’t have much (really any) money, they are confused – don’t lawyers make a lot of money?
I can’t tell them that the disability is more than just for spine surgery – in fact it has nothing to do with spine surgery and was granted 6 months before I even knew I’d have to have surgery. I can’t explain that I can’t keep a job because of all of my illnesses in general, but mostly because of my mental illnesses.
Just as I used to wear “clothes that ‘disguise’ me as having money from my former career days” so I wouldn’t seem poor. Now I wear them to “disguise” me as being just okay.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of my mental illness. It’s just not exactly something you start talking about when you run across someone you haven’t seen in a while. I don’t want to scare people with my mental health history. I don’t want them to judge me after all this time. At some level I want to sit down with them and tell them everything. But mostly I beg that they won’t want to spend too much time catching up because it’s hard to keep up the facade that everything is fine. They don’t want to hear the messy details of what has become my life, not because they don’t care, but because it’s too much all at once.
The same happens with people I meet in social situations. Luckily we can skip the “how have you been?” and the “how is your family?” and move on to “what do you do?” But that comes with the same problems – because if I say “I’m a health policy attorney” it’s pretty much a lie. Technically it’s true. I’m still licensed and do patient advocacy. But I don’t work. I haven’t been able to work in years now and even before that I couldn’t hold a steady job. I can keep up the thin veneer that I’m an accomplished professional for short events, but that’s about it.
Beyond short events, even if I want to, I can’t really make new friends. Recently, the few times that I have gone to do something social, I’m immediately put into the position that I have to hide who I am. I can’t let anyone get close because all too soon they’ll see a pretty ugly reality. I can’t invite people in when my mental health is this tenuous and my physical health suffers constantly. I can’t explain that I can’t go get coffee because I can’t really afford coffee. I can’t explain away the last few years – how I left Austin and things fell apart in Grantsville and I ended up in Colorado alone. I try to skip over parts of the story and hit the highlights as if it were all some grand adventure, but those hidden parts will find their way out at some point.
I wish I could more easily tell people when I meet them who I am now, what I’ve been through. I know though that the reality is too much to say all at once to anyone. It’s too sad, to confusing, too embarrassing, too crazy, too…
Ironically, it’s easier to write it publicly where strangers can read it than to tell someone in person. It was easier to tape part of my story (which honestly still skipped over much of my story) and have it air at Stanford’s Medicine X than tell someone when they ask – how are you? and what do you do?
I am broken. I have been broken in many ways for a long time. I have been hurt and lost nearly everything – including my mind and my body to diseases that have no answers. I am alone and I am scared of the future. I have failed so many times and am not sure each day how to breathe and move forward, so I do so numbly because the pain is too much.
I wanted to tell my coach today how lost that little girl she once knew is. That though the narrative on my life should read “successful health policy attorney”, which is essentially what I told her, that life is not my reality. I wanted her to know who I am, but it’s easier not to. It’s easier not to let anyone know, not let anyone close again, to not say anything.