The ‘dog ate my homework’ lie
Miranda muses on the white lies we tell to disguise our mental illness – from ‘the dog ate my homework’ to ‘my car wouldn’t start’ – and, once freed from them, how powerful the truth can be.
When you were a child, the dog ate your homework. When you’re an adult. the traffic is a nightmare, your alarm didn’t go off or your stupid phone lost all its contacts.
Does this sound familiar?
That’s because we all lie: white lies here and bendy truths there. We get so used to it that we become ashamed of ourselves and lie automatically when we feel that we will disappoint someone, lose face or cause annoyance. We just want to be liked and well thought of, underneath everything. So, we lie.
I lied endlessly over the years, rather than admit that I was bipolar, when some aspect of my illness had caused me to either lose my job, lose a relationship, lose a home or lose a friend. I had a completely alternate version of my life and CV ready to roll out at the drop of a hat. rather than tell my story the way I do now.
Lying about my illness has become so ingrained over 16 years that it is a habit hard to break. I turned up at the school drop-off one morning a few weeks ago and a friend looked at me and kindly remarked that I looked quite tired and asked if I was ok. Without thinking. I started to tell her that the dog had eaten my homework, so to speak, and actually managed to stop myself.
Then I told the truth.
I was actually in the middle of trying to manage a very challenging hypomanic episode that had come on quickly and was fairly acute. I explained the basics of my situation to her and one of my son’s teachers, who was standing with her. Not only were they kind, considerate and genuine in their concern, but they thanked me for giving them the insight I had – particularly the teacher who remarked how useful it was to hear this, from her point of view, as all our actions as parents impact our children.
I went home with a weight lifted off my shoulders, a feeling I had not experienced before. Although I have been publicly speaking out about my illness for a while now, this was the first time I have become unwell during that time – and the first time I nearly lost my homework to the dog, but stopped myself. I left the school blinking at myself in the light of not having lied about my current battle with hypomania. It felt great.
I was so inspired by my courageous rescue of homework from said dog’s gaping jaws, that I turned to my public Facebook page where I share and chat about mental health and inspirational ideas. I documented my struggle on this public forum, as well as with my friends on my personal timeline. I charted my episode from onset through to the peak – where speed wobble and breakdown set in – and on to treatment with the crisis team, reassessment of my medication and, eventually, to peacful conclusion, where relatively normal service resumed. The whole episode lasted about a month.
The result of doing this surprised me on a number of levels, and doubled my passion in doing what I do as a public speaker and advocate of speaking out. Here is what happened:
I felt supported because people followed my posts and made comments of support.
I didn’t have to lie because I was telling everyone the truth and I didn’t feel ashamed.
I received messages from a few people saying they were directly inspired by these posts to tell the truth about why they had been off work or behind with something. All of them either struggle with a degree of depression or take meds for a mental health condition.
Truth has power
I worked with the crisis team, and my friends and colleagues stood by while I did my best to keep everyone fully in the loop. My husband felt hugely supported by the fact that people knew; he felt less isolated in his mammoth task and responsibility as carer. Other parents asked after me and he didn’t have to lie. He felt able to ask for compassionate leave from work to lighten the load at home. And here I am – peacefully emerging from the other side of a hectic few weeks. Hypomanic episodes have always preceded a manic episode and then hospitalisation for me, or I crash-land badly, suffer a major disruption of some kind in my life and struggle, choking, back to normality through a fog of lies about what happened.
My conclusion is that I don’t need to be ashamed of my shortcomings, embarrassed about my inconsistencies or fearful of others’ perceptions of me. Truth has subtle power that can cause unexpected change. It did for me.
The ‘happily ever after’ bit of this story is simply that the poor dog was innocent the whole time.