Together at the Poles

The Fine Art of Hiding Bipolar Disorder and Why It Kinda Sucks

I’ve gotten very good at what my psychiatrist calls “presenting well.” What this basically means is that, under normal circumstances, it’s not obvious that I have bipolar disorder, even when I’m having a moderate episode (more severe ones are another story). While none of my friends were especially surprised when I disclosed my bipolar disorder, on a day-to-day basis, I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding what is going on.

I’ve found that this has its good side and its bad side. On the good side, it makes it easier for me to function in society and to avoid some (though not all) stigma. On the bad side, it creates a kind of loneliness that can be difficult to deal with. In this article, I discuss my experiences with “presenting well,” and one of the ways that I’ve learned to deal with the ensuing loneliness involved.

I think this post may be a little controversial, but I don’t mean it to be. It’s simply sharing my own experience, and how I’ve managed to cope personally with something to which I have found no better solution.

How I’ve Presented Well

I honestly think my capacity to present well comes from my experiences in acting. Once upon a time, I was a theater major in an arts high school. The school was quite similar to Fame and we did actually sing in the hallways (although we never actually engaged in choreographed dance numbers on top of people’s cars).

One of the skills I learned there was improvisation, and not only the “Evening at the Improv” kind. Rather, we would develop characters and scenes as we went, which taught me how to develop a persona without there being a script. This ultimately taught me to present well, though of course I wasn’t thinking of it as such at the time (I wasn’t diagnosed until well after high school).

One part of what makes dramatic improvisation work is what Freud called “counter-transference.” That is, we often pick up certain cues from how other people see us, and start to internalize that role. I’ve increasingly found that I’m very good at behaving in the way that other people expect me to behave, and that I actually find myself partially being who people expect me to be. This has enabled me to present well, filling the appropriate role in the appropriate situations.

I should mention that this was never a conscious process. In fact, I only really realized I was doing it in the last couple of years (and, in fact, for the first decade or so of my bipolar disorder, I was actually pretty bad at it). Nonetheless, after I’d learned to blend in in many situations, it occurred to me that, “Oh yeah, I’m doing improv.”

Why Presenting Well Is Lonely

The primary problem with presenting well is that it has created a certain kind of loneliness. It’s not that I wasn’t lonely before. After all, not presenting well led to a kind of rejection where I was often by myself, anyway. However, the new situation was different. I found that I could become very lonely, even when I was in a crowd of other people.

This takes on different forms depending on my mood. When I’m depressed, there’s the feeling that I would really like the support of people around me, no matter what kind of situation I am engaged in. I remember recently being very upset about something while I was doing something academic, and thinking to myself, “I really wish someone would ask me if I’m okay, since I’m definitely not.” This experience can be very lonely.

On the other hand, hypomania creates a different kind of loneliness. When I’m hypomanic, I’ll become extremely excited about things that the people around me don’t really care about. When my hypomania is less severe, I’ll be quite aware of this, and refrain from going on about whatever it is that has really captured my interest, since I believe that I’ll be boring people (when it’s more severe, I’ll stop noticing that other people aren’t interested, but then I won’t be presenting well, anyway).

This, too, can be very lonely. When I’m really fixated on something, it’s hard to accept that other people aren’t interested. After all, how can they not find it completely awesome? At worst, I’ll feel rejection because no one cares about what I care about so deeply. At best, I’ll be conscious of myself going through the motions of trying to care about what I can’t actually care about, and only feel excluded.

Finding My Own Emotional Space

I’ve recently found a way of dealing with this, and it has helped me find social situations less stressful (though not necessarily less lonely). This has been to carve out for myself a kind of emotional space that I can exist in, even when engaging with a crowd that cannot or will not share in that emotional space.

Perhaps the best way of phrasing it is to use Saint Paul’s expression of being “in the world but not of the world.” I try to think of myself of actually being alone, and detaching myself from the expectation that other people will engage themselves with my emotional state. But that’s okay. After all, as an academic, I’m alone much of the time, anyway. No one engages my emotional state when I’m by myself, so if I free myself from the expectation that other people will always do so, I can exist partially in the same inner emotional space that I use when walking down the street or reading a book.

I have found that this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. One of the interesting things about counter-transference is that we become the expected person to some extent internally as well as externally. Sure, for the most part, I’m living in my own emotional state, but for flashes, I may even start to enjoy being with other people, at least in part. It can make me feel somewhat euthymic inside when I’m behaving euthymic on the outside.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes things are bad enough that I’ll never get the sense of become what I’m presenting myself as. However, it happens enough that it’s usually worth the effort. It helps me cope with something I’ve otherwise found insoluble.

Is This Something I Should Be Doing?

Of course, this raised for me the question of whether I’m just being dishonest, and whether there’s something wrong with that. To be honest, I don’t really care. Living with bipolar disorder is hard enough without having to live up to some standard of authenticity that’s never made any sense to me anyway. I’m the one who actually has to live with this disorder, and I’m not willing to have people set up social standards of my behavior and then criticize me for actually following them.

It’s not like I’m simply burying the expression of my feelings. I’m merely postponing their expression for more controlled and private situations where people have the time to actually help me. I’ll often even express how I was feeling, not as a criticism of the situation, but so that people can understand what I’ve been going through. My presenting well gives me the power to choose when to be public and when to be private, without ultimately deceiving those who are close to me.

So, that’s my experience of presenting well, and the ways that I’ve learned to cope with it. To be honest, the whole thing is kind of a struggle, and I’m not sure there isn’t a better approach. However, it has allowed me to maintain social relationships that ultimately are much more helpful to me than my previous complete isolation. It has been for me a way of managing my condition while living the kind of life that is important to me.

42 Responses to The Fine Art of Hiding Bipolar Disorder and Why It Kinda Sucks

  • Thanks again for sharing this. I’ve always thought I have to be a certain kind of person for being liked. I never heard this term (presenting well) but I do believe I’ve been presenting for years. Sometimes I almost feel as though I am wearing a mask and kind of slip behind my face. Mainly I notice this when there is a confrontation or something I’m not liking. It’s like I get scared to be “present” during the discussion. Coming from an abusive childhood I think I’ve been doing this for years as well. Thanks for sharing your posts mean a lot to me.

    • You’re welcome, Christina. My wife pointed out to me earlier that bipolar people aren’t the only ones who do this. It’s something quite common for anyone who is suffering.

  • Thank you for articulating what I so often feel.I trained as an English teacher and so can automatically adopt a role which is condusive to a situation.This can leave me feeling incredibely lonely.I too, have been told that Ipresent well,perhaps too well.Sometimes I long for people to see beyond the front.Yet at the same time I recall the adage ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you,cry and you cry alone’.However,it helps to read blogs such as yours.To know that there are others who experience the contradictions and complexities of the bi-polar mind is very reassuring.

    • You’re welcome, Claire. I really like your comment about “contradictions and complexities.” This is one of those things I’m never quite sure how to handle, and I’m really glad for everyone’s input.

    • Claire, I know your post is almost a year old, but I hope you get this message. You described exactly how I feel. It would be so great to just have someone recognize the “real” you is hiding somewhere behind the mask. I too, was a teacher. Playing such a role all the time is exhausting. It’s so hard to just exist day-to-day. I wish you the best with all my heart!

  • Good article. I’ve been doing the same since I was a little girl. At first to take the pressure of my mum who had dreadful depression when I was a child then to get over painful shyness, then just to try and fit in as I’ve grown up. I’ve often joked I could win an Oscar at times :-). Now at 41 I’m very open about my bipolar. I don’t generally hide it and I’ve been very lucky never to have had a bad reaction from anyone BUT I take great pains not to inflict my condition on others and this requires acting. But the thing in your article that really struck a cord in me was the loneliness. Thats the hardest part on the condition I think is the crushing loneliness. Good friends say ‘you can always talk to me’ but the last thing you want to do bring others down or get looks of confusion when you enthuse about something in a way that they just don’t understand, so you suffer alone.
    Great site, very informative and a real perspective ‘from the trenches’.

    • That’s really interesting, Heather. Now that I’m public about my bipolar disorder, I’ve noticed the same shift from “hiding” to “not inflicting.” It’s certainly someone for me to think about. Thank you.

    • Heather, it IS lonely, and so difficult, too, to hold it all in. I’m happy that you’ve had success being so open.

  • I’m usually able to present well in public, but this has created a problem for me. People always underestimate how severe my symptoms are, which makes me doubt myself and also causes problems for getting treatment. My doctor would always ask me how I was still doing well in school, and I think this gave her the impression that my symptoms weren’t that bad. I can completely relate to what you said about wishing people would ask you if you’re okay. Sometimes I wish that people could pick up on it when I’m struggling.

    • That’s a good point, Ray. Presenting well can really cause other people not to notice how bad things are on the inside. For those of us who present well, we end up having to be much more proactive about seeking treatment.

  • I also do quite well with my “mask”. When I am in public, no one would ever guess that I am bipolar. I never discuss it with strangers. If anyone asks me how I am doing, I always answer, “just fine”. The biggest problem I have with presenting well, is that it is exhausting both physically and emotionally to pretend for an extended period of time. As soon as I am in the safety of my own home, I find myself ready to collapse. Another problem I have is that since I can hide all but the worst of my depressive phases of my bipolar, I will often hide it from family and other bipolar friends who seem to be having problems. If my husband is going through a tough period at work, I won’t tell him that I am having a bad time. If friends who I know are depressed call me to vent, I won’t tell them if I am also having a bad time. My hypo-manic phases are a little harder to hide, but since I just clean and organize like crazy and stay up way too late during these times, no one in my family notices most of the time.

    While it may seem that “presenting well” is a wonderful compliment, we who are able to do it know it is not always that wonderful. Thank you for your great post. I certainly helps to know I am not alone in my feelings about the subject.

    • You’re welcome, Norell. I’ve found since I went public with my bipolar disorder, the process has been less exhausting, since I’m not as worried about “messing” up and getting caught. I’m not saying that everyone should do this, because it depends on the situation, but it has taken some of the stress of the process off of me.

  • I recognize every word of that. The thing that stuck out to me was about when depression hits, wanting people to ask how you were. I always do that but I know that if they did ask, the mask would come out even stronger, I have no idea how to handle people doing that. I think I am afraid that everything would come pouring out and when they knew what I never tell anyone about what goes on, they would leave. Alternatively I am afraid that I would be unable to articulate what I want/need to and so they would just assume I was fine, or I suppose also that I would tell them and they would just not be able to react and support in the way I have hoped for.

    I bug the hell out of people during hypomania, sometimes I am able to keep my mouth shut and just think or write but most often it just drives me mad that they don’t understand how important and amazing the topic I am interested in is and I lose my temper.

    Sorry for rambling comment, I hope maybe your article will make people feel a little less alone even if it’s just seeing that others do that too.

    • No worries, Donna, and thank you. That’s a really good point about people asking. It is something mixed, and if someone did ask how I was doing, I’m pretty sure I’d just keep covering it up. That’s definitely something to think about. Thank you.

  • Your article was very familiar. I feel like I’ve been acting for years, but I was curious to know if this “presenting well” wears you out? I get so exhausted sometimes from being a person that my mood isn’t. The loneliness view also makes a lot of sense. I think some of the loneliness with me has to do with trying to keep the bipolar disorder to myself.

    • A little bit, Laurie. It’s certainly been better since I went public about my bipolar disorder, since I’m less worried about being caught. Still, it can be very exhausting at times, and I tend to stay away from anything that isn’t imperative, especially when I’m really depressed.

  • Queen – The Great Pretender – the motto of my life!!!! But yes it is very very lonely!!! Luckily I love my own company and seeing that nobody really understand, they can’t really help!!!

  • This is interesting. I have a long time friend who has the ability to ‘present’ well when in a stressful situation with the health service or police. He can go from being very vocal and aggressive during an episode to completely calm. Two examples of this are when he was actually being admitted to hospital after a long period of being unwell and when he was talking to the police in his home after they had been called by a neighbour who was concerned about his shouting. It has lead to some confusing situations. As he completely transforms. He is also generally well in front of his CPN despite the fact that his family is saying that he has been unwell. We are intrigued as to how this is for him. And he says it is just survival. Do other people have this experience?

    • That’s an interesting experience, Francesca. I haven’t really noticed people who do it in such a targeted way, but it may be that your friend has developed the ability to suppress it for a short period of time.

  • Thank you for explaining ‘presenting well.’ I have been doing this most of my life without k.owing what it was. It’s an unconscious act. It’s only been recently that I have been able to make a concerted effort to let down my guard with some people. I have found that, ad mentioned above, presenting well does interfere with my treatment.

    Also, thank you for mentioning the feeling of boring others when you talk about the most recent interest. I have felt this way my entire life,

    This drive to learn all I could about a particular subject drove me to university to study archaeology. While I maintain my interest, this is no longer what I want to do with my life. Instead, I am taking psychology, in the hopes that I may be able to help others with similar issues.

    • You’re welcome, Lauren. I, too, have been looking more and more at studying psychology. I’ve realized just how much help people need, and I’d love to contribute to that.

  • Thank you for explaining ‘presenting well.’ I have been doing this most of my life without knowing what it was. It’s an unconscious act. It’s only been recently that I have been able to make a concerted effort to let down my guard with some people. I have found that, as mentioned above, presenting well does interfere with my treatment.

    Also, thank you for mentioning the feeling of boring others when you talk about your most recent interests. I have felt this way my entire life, always struggling to keep thoughts on what interested me to myself, for fear my friends and family would just tune me out anyway.

    This drive to learn all I could about a particular subject drove me to university to study archaeology. While I maintain my interest, this is no longer what I want to do with my life. Instead, I am taking psychology, in the hopes that I may be able to help others with similar issues.

    Thank you again for putting some sense to something that I thought only I did. It is refreshing to know I am not alone.

  • I have been tryiny to be as honest as possible with peolple and also tryiny to find a kind of safe space for my feelings. I also know what it’s like to put on a public persona, but have found this to crack under pressure. I feel confused, but from reading you articule I have come to the conclusion that it is a good idea to save the inner me for a particular moment and put on the show to get through everyday life. Not all interactions warrant complete honesty and it can be abusive to other people or oneself. Surely a common way of initialising conversation is not ingenuous?

    • I agree, John. As I put it above, I find it very frustrating to have there be social norms and then be criticized for following them :(. My basic view is that there isn’t a “real me” to be expressed, so I don’t really worry about being disingenuous. Truth only applies to propositions, not to behavior, so there’s nothing dishonest about playing a social role.

  • This past October i lost a close friend, he lost his battle with his condition at 31 years of age. The one thing that alot of people say was “I didnt even know he was depressed.” and it is all too familiar as to me as people say to me “you seem to happy to be depressed” or “what do you have to be depressed about?” I can say this, depression and disorders make you act very manipulative, to the point where you even believe what you are saying even if it isnt the truth. Living behind you disorders is a shield that you think protects you, but ultimately it can be the most detrimental. Being Bi-Polar I find every second of the day a struggle, and even more so when i have to put on an act so that the people around me aren’t hypersensitive to what is going on with me and my thoughts. Hiding and depression left unnoticed can have catastrophic results, as seen with David’s completion of suicide. Awareness of depression and suicide prevention needs to rise. I am doing my best, as hypocritical as it may be. I know what hurts and helps me, to a degree, but I also know I am not doing all I can. But I am trying….By supporting the life is priceless foundation (created from the loss of David Vincent Price) I hope I can help raise the awareness, and ignorance of mental disease and disorders. Helping others may in turn help me, which is something that research of depression has shown.

  • I’ve always said I could’ve been a Hollywood actress. This year I have been acting “normal” most the time. I have been stolen from, lied to and back stabbed by everyone I (knew better) let in my “normal” life. I have decided that I am done and going to be lonely if that’s what I have to do to keep from hurting people. Normal can kiss my butt for the most part, I have learned to let days go by so I can not deal so dramatically with situations that make me wanna go “bipolar” on society. When I didn’t mask my illness I sure didn’t get ran over like I am now. Couseling this month is going to be very interesting….signed, FED UP 😉

  • I am convinced that that I have Bipolar and my future husband s brother has Bipolar and both he and my partner are convinced I have Bipolar. I have seen a mental health “professional” who after a 50 minute assessment last year diagnosed me as having Unipolar depression, which is NOT a true diagnoses as I am NOT depressed all the time. I cannot be depressed all the time as I am a mommy to two beautiful children and will have 3 stepchildren when my partner Dave and I get married July 21st at 4pm.
    Right, at a recent mental health assessment, by a CPN, I took Dave my partner and his brother with me as they live with me more or less 24/7 and have knowledge of how my mood swings are-she did not like that as she, the cpn (Community Psychiatric Nurse)wanted to only talk about how I am now, not years back like I think I have had this for: I need a diagnosis and I need one “now”-they wont diagnose me with Bipolar and try and keep away from the idea that I have got Bipolar. A previous CPN does not think I am Bipolar because I do NOT put us in debt by spending loads of money.How do I get my point across to these people without stepping on anyone s toes please? Thank you for taking time to read my message here on your site-Emma Baran

    • That sounds like a really frustrating experience, Emma. I can’t really contribute to the diagnosis, but what I would say is that you don’t need to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes when it comes to proper treatment. Psychiatry is about our mental health, not about our psychiatrists’ feelings (not that they don’t have feelings that we should care about, but we shouldn’t compromise our care).

  • that very much nails it on the head of me in terms of what i feel and experience majority of the time. add on top of that the paranoia that creeps in and gets in the way a vast majority of time. And yes i to experience lonlyness unable to hold a stable relationship down. especially one that involves a partner of the opposite sex. i long dream of the day where i can find someone that truly would want to commit to me despite my illness. have not found her. sometimes i donno weather i should chaulk it up as my illness prevents me from having the relationship i want and just deal with it. and face the fact that i may be lonley for the rest of my life. or if i should hope and pray that someone who understands comes along.

    • Thank you for the comment, William. I definitely found that relationships were very tricky, and I said in my wedding toast that, “I know how lucky I am.” I do have a discussion if you are interested on relationships here.

  • Thank you for your message. You have described exactly what I’ve felt like most of my life, though of course I did not realize what was happening to me. I was misdiagnosed and prescribed antidepressants for several years. I am 61 years old and just recently have been diagnosed with Bipolar II. I am taking Tegretol and it seems to be helping me quite well. Having just recently completed 8 sessions of chemotherapy (and am cured!), I am still very vulnerable emotionally because the chemo drugs do that to one. Still, I feel the Tegretol is keeping me ‘above board’ and afloat. Just recently I have experienced a family upset and do not expect resolution any time soon. This gives me yet another challenge to feel well in spite of what life tosses my way. I refuse to give up and fall into depression because that is the very worst place to be. Day by day I will grow stronger and live my life as ‘normally’ as possible. Somehow I know I am able to do this. Physical activity is helpful though I am not currently engaged in any group like yoga or music therapy which are the things I am looking at to get involved in. I am afraid of presenting as too friendly, too capable, too enthusiastic, so I am taking a cue from your message and will ‘rein in my horses’ which is what my husband says would be a helpful idea. He is not mentally ill but even so he is on my side and accepts me as I am. That is a blessing! Again, thank you Daniel, and best wishes in continuing your life in the best way you can for yourself and those you love.

    • Thank you Lucy. Congratulations on the successful chemo, and I’m so happy to hear that you have such a supportive husband. I know my wife has been a huge help to me in these trials.

  • I think there are a lot of us out there who “present well”. My psychiatrist refers to it as high-functioning but I think it’s essentially the same thing. Even when I’m in moderate episode, no body really knows and I still manage to get by. The problem I see with this is that people assume that I am not that unwell because I continue to carry on, and mask my symptoms. But the truth of the matter is, it is actually detrimental to my health because I tend not to seek help until I am no longer able to function and this tends to be when things are severe and harder to treat. That’s the only disadvantage I see to it!

    • That’s a really good point. I’ve found it’s helpful to try to separate how I am presenting publicly with getting the help that I need for how I am feeling privately.

  • Thank you so much for this post. I see myself here. I’ve told my psychiatrist that I deserve an Oscar for the acting I do. Unfortunately this has also kicked me in the teeth. I was so “into” my role that I started believing that I don’t need my medication. I even fooled the psychiatrist.

    This eventually caused that I had to spend three weeks in a clinic to sort me out again. I suspect that the main reason for me acting this way was because, even 12 years after my diagnosis, I still refused to accept that I have bipolar and that I will have it forever.

    I’ve now accepted it and with a lot of help is learning to cope without “acting” as much as I used to. It’s now take me or leave me!

    Thanks again. I glad to know that I’m not the only one.

  • Thank you for writing your story. It’s so easy for us with bipolar to feel isolated in our experiences with things such as this. I knew exactly what you were talking about. People without bipolar couldn’t begin to. I feel a little less alone, “crazy” and wrong when I see that really, I am not. God give you strength for your journey.

  • This is such an accurate analysis of my own experience. It’s exhausting living with BPII as it is, because it’s so up and down. Everything is constantly in flux and we are checking ourselves against societal norms, cultural norms, workplace norms, familial norms…”how can I make this other person feel more comfortable being around me”, “how do I read people and their reactions to me?” It’s something I am negotiating all the time. So many doctors at times have refused to believe that I am BPII because I am so self aware at times; aspects of borderline are present in my past, but I make an active effort to control things. Meds only work for short periods of times or affect other parts of my chemistry making them impossible(lithium, SSRI’s). I feel like I am in a state of loss so often; as though I don’t have the right to exist because I can’t manage like everyone else; but I go to work, I seem to always find work but I am mostly definitely under the poverty line. I am attempting graduate school now and hoping that moving inward and isolating myself more will help me focus. I am just so incredibly sad and tired of hiding like I am some sort of freak, or people telling me that it’s not real.

    • I apologize for the very late response, Shay. Your comment got lost in a spam attack I faced several months ago.

      I’m still negotiating how to behave in such a way that is authentic to being bipolar. The problem is that I’ve gotten so good at hiding it, I’m not even sure what being authentically bipolar would even look like. Still, having a few people around me who have been supportive of me has made it a lot easier to start to experiment a little bit with what might be truer to what is really going on inside of me.

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Counselling from Daniel
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC is a Registered Social Worker and Canadian Certified Counsellor with a private practice operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. He provides in-person counselling in Kitchener and email, video or telephone counselling within Canada.

To find out more, please visit the website for his private practice, Bader Mediation & Counselling Services.