I have Type I Diabetes and Bipolar II disorder. During my time at Georgetown, I was the most open about my diabetes with my fellow Hoyas. I had no problem explaining how my insulin pump worked to friends or teachers and I never shied away from injecting myself with my insulin pen at meal times. However, I did hide many of the negative aspects of my diabetes. If I felt shaky or had trouble focusing because my blood glucose levels were too low, I blamed it on being “tired” and needing coffee because I knew that was something to which my peers could easily relate. Similarly, I never talked about my high blood glucose levels because they implied that I miscalculated or forgot something involving my diabetes. I didn’t want to be seen as irresponsible with something that commercials and pop culture medical tidbits said was so easy to manage, so I hid the moments when my diabetes seemed out of my control.
My reasoning for hiding my Bipolar II disorder was very similar. My roommates rarely saw me take my nightly cocktail of mood stabilizing drugs. When they did, I never tried to explain what they were, I just silently hoped that they assumed the pills were related to my dysfunctional pancreas and not my off-kilter brain chemistry. When I was hypo-manic and feeling like a rock star with little to no control over her thoughts-to-mouth processors, I was grateful that my friends rolled their eyes and talked about how immature I was rather than being concerned that something could actually be going wrong in my life. I let myself feel like a burden when I let people sit with me during my depressive episodes instead of admitting that something was wrong because it allowed me to maintain the illusion that my violent mood swings were a choice that I was making.
I hid aspects of my diabetes and Bipolar II disorder from my professors, peers and mentors because I could not admit that so much of my daily life was to some extent beyond my control. Everyone knows that a good Hoya is in control of everything—especially their mind and body. You can see evidence of this internalized myth in the amount of Hoyas who suffer from eating disorders, decide not to report instances of harassment or sexual or relationship violence, abuse substances like drugs and alcohol, or find solace in discussing their daily struggles on websites like Hoyas Anonymous. My understanding of Georgetown culture was that Hoyas must always appear perfectly serene on the surface, so when my disabilities disturbed that serenity I chose to hide them.
While I did end up having to take a leave of absence to stabilize my Bipolar II disorder, I was able to graduate from Georgetown only 2 years after my original expected graduation date. The time away from campus was helpful because it gave me a safe space to be honest with myself about my disabilities and how they affected my life. This made it easier for me to be honest about the reason for my time away when I met new people, although I still avoid talking about my mental and physical health with the people I knew before I took a break. Now, when I look back on my time at Georgetown, I am conflicted about whether my decision to hide my disabilities made it easier more difficult to navigate undergrad.
I know that in many ways my decision to turn my disabilities into a game of hiding caused me to feel very isolated for much of my undergraduate career—even after I came back from my leave of absence. I can see how my continued decision not to talk about them has negatively affected some of my friendships: many of my friends laughed at the times when I would spend a few weeks crying and a few weeks hyperactive because they thought I was just acting immature or obnoxious. They’ve thought they have givin me a compliment during times when they’ve shared how happy they are I finally decided to “grow up”, since they didn’t realize my previous behavior pattern was symptomatic of my mood swings; mood swings I now spend a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy fighting to keep from showing every day of my life. I also know that my decision to hide my disabilities has made it incredibly difficult for me to learn how to ask for help, (something that probably exacerbated my feelings of isolation from the greater Georgetown community and probably prevented me from excelling to the extent that I would have liked at times).
At the same time, seeing my disabilities as something to hide has helped me to grow because they truly were my struggles. In much the same fashion that I had to learn for myself how to eat on a strict schedule to better maintain my diabetes (because no one else knew enough about my blood glucose levels to recommend that lifestyle choice to me), it was up to me to realize when I was entering into a period of hypomania or depression because my fellow Hoyas didn’t know to point out changes in my behavior as possible symptoms of relapse. Sometimes, my approach was dangerous. Mostly, however, it was enlightening. And I believe it gave me a deeper appreciation of the friends that I did decide to trust with the full truth of my physical and mental health because their patience, care and sincerity reminded me that it was indeed possible to be a good Hoya and not have everything tightly under your control.
In the end, probably the most valuable lesson I learned from living with disabilities during undergrad and the lesson with which I still struggle the most today: Perfection is not necessary to be a good person. You do not need to have effortless control over every aspect of your life in order to be a responsible, caring, hardworking, loveable individual—regardless of which school you attend or what kind of day you are having. While I do not think it would be wise to share every detail of your struggles or “imperfections” with every person that you know, I also do not think that you should shame yourself into hiding those facts to the point where it negatively affects your physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual well-being.
I hid my disability because I thought it was the only way I could survive undergrad. And in some ways it was, but in many ways (i.e: taking a leave of absence) it wasn’t. For anyone else living with a disability in undergrad, please realize this: you have the privilege to decide whether you maintain your experience living with a disability private while enrolled in college in the same way that I did while at Georgetown, or, share your personal experiences with whomever you would like with the expectation you should continue to receive the same respect, care and dignified treatment from your friends, colleagues and educators because regardless of how your disability is defined, it never strips you from ,your inherent right to such treatment.