Photo by Lex Valtenbergs
Photo by Lex Valtenbergs

Masking mental illness is a privilege

If we dare to overcome our fear of judgement, we are more prepared to dig through the other discriminatory narratives that are ingrained in us.

by Lex Valtenbergs

I could tell that the woman lingering at the bus stop was mentally ill within the first few moments of speaking to her, although it wasn’t my place to surmise what mental illness she suffered from.

She asked me a question about the bus schedule and muttered something aloud as if in reply, but not to me. When her eyes met mine again, she blurted, “Oh!” as if she forgot I was there.

My initial reaction was to fear her; I didn’t understand the inner workings of her mind nor their outward manifestations. I perceived her as volatile and therefore threatening.

At that time, I was also going through a protracted depressive episode marked by the distinctive mistrust and self-sabotaging tendencies that are all too common in borderline personality disorder. As a result, I had little to no verve to engage with her.

In our own respective ways we were unmasked.

The difference between her and myself is that I have the privilege to mask, or hide the symptoms of my mental illness to the best of my ability. She’s always visible; not by choice but by circumstance.

Ironically, my masking urge to ‘help’ in some way and assuage her symptoms that brought me discomfort was snuffed out by my own unmasked symptoms. I was defying the neurotypical script and the internalized ableism – discrimination against people with disabilities, mentally ill and neurodivergent people – that came with it.

I got on the bus and sat down, trying to push away the dread and discomfort that were triggered by the brief interaction that I had with the mentally ill stranger at the bus stop.

As if being summoned by telepathy, the woman appeared at the open back door of the bus and asked me another question that I didn’t have an answer to. Just before the back door slid shut, she snuck inside the bus without paying at the front and sat down across from me.

For the next half hour or so, she had an ongoing dialogue with no one in particular, constantly shifted in her seat, and ripped up a handful of white paper straw covers from a fast food restaurant.

At one point her eyes wandered to mine and she asked me, point-blank, “Are you okay?”

I was baffled by her lucidity. I curtly replied, “I’m good,” even though I wasn’t. She didn’t push me like I feared she would.

At the last northbound bus stop in Eureka, she abruptly stood up from her seat. She left a pair of brown moccasin boots under her seat. As she passed by me, she gently touched my shoulder and said, “I love you.”

The physical contact was unexpected but not entirely unwelcome. When she told me that she loved me – a misplaced but sincere disclosure – I felt the burning touch of shame press firmly inward. What were the people around us were thinking? Would they associate me with her?

It didn’t matter, I consoled myself. I always try to deconstruct any ableist narratives that crop up in my mind. Then I learn from it and strive not to repeat it again.

If we dare to overcome our fear of judgement, we are more prepared to dig through the other discriminatory narratives that are ingrained in us.

She turned around. “Could you be a dear and grab my boots for me?”

I cynically inferred that she left her boots on purpose just so I could get them for her, but I realized that I couldn’t be certain. Even if I was, her intention wasn’t malicious. I stooped down to grab them, and brought them out to her.

It felt like we understood each other as I handed her the boots. She took her boots from my hands, and then she was gone.

I almost cried as I sat in silence, my heart twinging painfully with every second the bus pulled away.

I am mentally ill. I am broken. I am whole, but not seamless. The woman on the bus couldn’t seal her cracks as well as I can, and that’s a privilege that weighs heavily on me.

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  1. harold a maio harold a maio Friday, April 15, 2022

    –I am mentally ill. I am broken. I am whole, but not seamless. The woman on the bus couldn’t seal her cracks as well as I can, and that’s a privilege that weighs heavily on me.

    I have an illness. I am not broken by it.

    Harold A Maio

  2. Lee Lee Saturday, April 16, 2022

    I’ve never read something like this before. I read it 3 times. Describing a moment between two people with mental illness. Beautiful way to express 2 things. All mental illnesses are not the same, as such all those living with mental illness do not experience them in the same way either. Secondly, neurotypicals often have more in common with neuroatypicals than they think. Living with mental illness, doesn’t mean you’re incapable of being hypocritical or that you can’t instinctually stigmatize another nueroatypical. Not saying it’s right or wrong. This was an affecting perspective that briefly illuminated a primarily unknown consideration. How surreal the extent of diversity that exists of the effects of mental illness from just one single individual to another.

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