Hidden In Plain Sight: success, mental health diagnosis, and K-drama connection.

The cast of Sung Dong-il, Lee Kwang-soo, Gong Hyo-jin, Jo In-sung, and Do Kyung-soo.
'It's Okay, That's Love' is a Korean TV show that portrays mental health issues in a respectful and empowering way.

Most people who I have worked with, and befriended, would say I am talkative and high energy, and a bit of an overachiever, which isn’t wrong. However, it is likely why my neurodiversity (aka: mental health diagnosis) was hiding in plain sight for so long.

I was just me, and didn’t appear to be any kind of psychological or psychiatric outlier because my behaviours were in line with the geeky brainiac that people saw and believed me to be. While they may have labeled me, mental health-related terms were never part of the list. Some of the labels bothered me, others I embraced – sometimes even to spite those who thought the label would bring me down. Some of the things I was labeled as, were tied to my later diagnoses and, were hiding in plain sight the entire time.

What I find interesting is that because my behaviours and accomplishments were acceptable, they were identified as assets - what I would later call my Superpowers.

I recently viewed a Korean TV drama It’s Okay, That’s Love where, for the first time, I saw a portrayal of mental health issues that I felt was truly empathetic to those of us with lived experience. It even connected the success and behaviours of characters to their diagnoses, which were also hiding in plain sight - except to their closest of friends, and medical professionals. This program won an award from the Korean Schizophrenia Society for the respectful, compassionate, and empowering representation of mental health diagnoses, especially schizophrenia, which is too often misunderstood and misrepresented. For all the dramatizations where I have seen mental health portrayed, it was the one I have found the most inspiring, hopeful, respectful, and empowering.

Yes, stigma was confronted and addressed, and without anyone on a soapbox. Characters and their conditions were neither romanticized, nor rescued, as is too often the case in TV and movies. It also reflected medical and interpersonal perspectives that were supportive and empowering. Its plot and portrayal showed that we can live within the world, and hide in plain sight - not because of shame - but because mental health issues are normal human experiences. We can have normal and successful lives.

Let me share how I hid in plain sight for decades to explain how that can work:

My first diagnosis came at 25, after the birth of my eldest, and while in grad school. Postpartum was identified after suicidal ideation, and a long spell of what I now know to be postpartum depression. While I shared this with some, for the most part the stigma issues at that time were such that I knew that being a single-mom grad student put enough on my plate. I knew that advertising a diagnosis that I had ‘overcome’ when life seemed to go back to normal, wasn’t going to help me. Depressive bouts and treatment remained my dominant diagnosis until more researching and reflection back on my life and would cause reappraisal of my lived experience, and my definitions of ‘normal’, functioning, and successful behaviours. (Spoiler alert: normal is just a setting on the dryer.)

That reflection, and revision, began when a friend was diagnosed as bipolar when we were 40. She and I shared energy and activity patterns from the time we became friends in high school. What we took as our ‘normal’- and even validated by using the other to benchmark - was really varying forms of hypomania. The crashes that came afterwards were just seen as a natural exhaustion and reset periods for us.

The notion of a manic build up to a depressive crash wasn’t something to be considered. For me, this was because the predominant hypomania I lived with was positive, energizing, and productive, and the majority of the dips were minimal and relatively quick. Natural burnout after burning the candle at both ends (and the middle) was how I saw it. I just figured that this is what everyone else went through. I also thought that those that didn’t understand what was happening to me just didn’t “run at 11” like I did, and their lethargy meant they didn’t need recovery the same way. Yes, I saw others as lazy because they couldn’t keep up with hypomanic me.

My cycling up and down was such that I was seen as, and felt like, a predominantly high energy, happy, and high achieving person. Because I was used to the near-permanent up, it was anxiety driven lows that were the exception to be noted. It was why the extreme depression that lead to suicidal thoughts stood out as an anomaly requiring medical attention.

It turns out that I was, in fact, a walking mood swing my whole life.

I was lucky enough to skew on the upside most of the time. I also was lucky enough to stay in relatively safe levels of hypomania, so risky behaviours weren’t occurring in a way that would have given evidence to my cycling either. It’s also why the lows were the things I tracked, and learned to identify and manage, especially their association with anxiety.

This is where cognitive behavioural therapy was a life-altering experience, in every sense of the word. Yet I only used it for the lows, because the highs were hiding in plain sight as the exemplary behaviour of a high achiever.

What this meant was that I had a literal sweet spot in my cycling. I did well in school, at work, and was seen as sociable and positive. This is why to this day, I see my neurodiversity as an asset to be managed, a power to be harnessed, because for the bulk of my life it has been. It has been front and centre in my personality, there for everyone to see. Yet somehow, it is the thing we were all oblivious too, unless the depression brought out darkness, temper, and apathy.

Research and reflection on family patterns, treatments, and a death by suicide, indicates that I am not an anomaly in the family tree. My children, and their experiences and diagnoses, would also later illuminate the range of my neurodiversity, those things that I had always taken to just be my quirks. Also hiding in plain sight were ADHD, along with some threads of OCD. Each of these had contributed to the image, and reality, of a thorough researcher, editor, educator, of an academic, and later cabinet minister, whose thinking was seen as creative. I was recognized for connecting dots, and seeing patterns which others didn’t. Even my OCD-derived meticulousness was rewarded in these contexts as detail-oriented professionalism.

I succeeded because my brain happened to do things in a manner, that for the most part, empowered me.

I consider myself fortunate for that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t know what it is like to derail and have debilitating aspects emerge and gut me. What it means is that I have seen both sides of my condition. I wonder how often other people have not been given that same opportunity to acknowledge, or experience, those empowering aspects because of stigma, misunderstanding, and inappropriate or non-existent support structures that viewed them as a diagnosis, rather than as a person first.

This brings me back to why I enjoyed It’s Okay, That’s Love, and why I recommend that anyone with an interest in mental health issues watch it. You may have already guessed that the title doesn’t sound like a show about mental health, and that’s because it is a charming love story that is full of humour, friendship, and even some feminism and social commentary in the mix. I have to admit that part of my enjoyment of K-dramas comes from the subtitles. If you are, like me, trying to break free yourself of continually checking your phone, foreign programs with subtitles are just the ticket, as you have to keep your eyes on the TV screen, and let the small screen go. So there’s another mental health bonus!

It is the story of a psychiatrist and the best-selling author she falls in love with, and the friends, colleagues, and roommates that are part of their lives. It is rich in plot and dialogue, and has a very natural feeling in its representation of a collection of people for whom mental health has a variety of personal and professional implications. Trauma is also addressed on a number of levels and through a variety of experiences, and is done in a manner that is insightful and empathetic. The representation of the breaks experienced by the character who lives with schizophrenia, are also very empathetic and organic in their portrayal: neither diminishing, nor demonizing, the condition or the person.

Throughout the program, we see the world through this person’s eyes, as well as from the perspective of loved ones. We see real people, with real lives. Love, loss, hope, support, optimism, and lives lived with a richness, which includes the texture added by lived experience. We see successes tied to, and shared by, characters and their growth and ongoing wellness journey. What I saw were people like me, having successes, and failures, due often times to the very same condition, just in different aspects, and often hidden in plain sight – from themselves, and from others. I saw growth, empowerment, and support, in ways that I have experienced, and in ways that I wish that I had experienced.

I saw on the screen what I wished I saw more of in real life: Empathy, compassion, and empowerment.

We often say that we can’t be, what we can’t see. So I give to you these two stories – one real and one fictional - to share with others, so that more may see something that many of us would like to be a reality: a world where our neurodiversity is part of our success, and where we are hidden in plain sight, because we no longer need to shout from the roof tops to get the support, attention, and care we deserve to attain those successes (or sometimes just get through the day).

Originally published on Empathy Cafe: https://empathy.cafe/hidden-in-plain-sight-success-mental-health-diagnosis-and-k-drama-connection/#.YAn8Yf1KiUk

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