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Me and My Shadow

My name is Stephanie and I am an overachiever. I am a hands on mother of two young children, a caring wife and friend, at a high point in my professional career, and thrive in the face of adversity.

I laugh a lot. I’m very social. I’ll take any call when a friend is in need. I smile. I bring my best to every day.

For me, this is what mental illness looks like.

Last week, news of entertainer Stephen “Twitch” Boss shocked many to the core by taking his own life. He was 40 years old with three children, and at the peak of his career. “He was always so happy”. “He was always smiling”. “He was the most amazing friend”.

My response? “I understand”.

And I wasn’t alone. Because that’s what it means when you have high-functioning mental illness. You smile. You laugh. You engage. You are productive. And no one knows that all the while, you are battling.

Let me explain. I have my mental illness (in my case, Bipolar 2) managed extremely well. I’ve been well supported by therapists and medications and have learned to read my own signs and cues for when I may need a bit of extra help. I’m happy. I have joy. My life is meaningful.

But I have a shadow. At least that’s how I’ve come to view it.

This shadow is a dark, black, heavy fog that that can’t be penetrated. In my worst of times – the times where I was at my sickest – the shadow encapsulated my brain wholly, refusing to release it and telling it lies. It whispered about how unlovable I was, about how much a burden I was on those who were caring for me. It inflicted pain and numbness.

Through the tools I was given, and through years of hard work, I have overcome my shadow – pushed it to the very back of my head and told it that it doesn’t deserve a voice. I’m a crass person… So I pretty much told it to fuck off and that it no longer got a seat at the table. I moved forward with my life, function as a very positive and grateful person, and hope to use my own experiences to help others heal.

But mental illness is a funny thing.

Because you can overcome, but you are never cured.

My shadow has never gone away. My shadow sits in the corner of my mind, waiting for moments of vulnerability, hoping to latch on to my thoughts and feed on them. Moments of quiet… times of high stress… making lunch on a weekend. My shadow looks for any opportunity to pounce. And in response, I battle. I talk to it. I reason with it. I make myself stronger than it. But I battle. Because I have to. Then I continue to make lunch, continue my emails, continue leading a meeting… I continue. And no one is the wiser.

Stephen “Twitch” Boss… Robin Williams… Anthony Bourdain. They continued. Until they couldn’t. This is the danger of high-functioning mental illness.

For those whose first reaction last week was “I understand”, you are seen. I see you battling. I feel your exhaustion from it. Keep working, keep smiling, keep functioning. You’re in good company with many of us.

And for everyone else... In a world riddled with negativity and in a time where we are plagued by the lies of social media… choose kindness and compassion for everyone around you.

Mental illness doesn’t just look like someone with depression, unable to get out of bed. Sometimes it does. Other times, mental illness means dinner parties, promotions at work, laughter, joy… and in Twitch’s case, dancing.

An extra smile at someone. A quick thank you email. A call to check in. You might just be the difference in someone’s battle. You might be the one helping to keep the shadow in the corner.


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