Over the months, the minor fib has spiraled into Mrs. Doubtfire levels of deception. Now, long since Michelle recovered enough to fly again and head down to Florida, she still fears that if she tells her parents, “they’ll hear on the news that someone else tested positive after getting over it and they’ll be worried,” she told me. “I’m just going to let them think that I’m bulletproof and that I’ve dodged it.” She doesn’t even think about telling strangers or her co-workers. If two of the people she trusted most reacted so poorly, why would anyone else treat her better?
No one hides an illness because they enjoy unleashing a cascade of lies. Sometimes, people think of what they’re doing as an act of kindness, says Meghan Moran, a health-communications scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “We’re constantly making decisions about what version of ourselves we want to present to others,” she told me. “Disclosing an illness could fracture the impression that people have of us. It’s giving up control.” Long before the pandemic, all sorts of people concealed all sorts of illnesses. Some of the writer Nora Ephron’s closest friends heard that she was sick with leukemia only a day or so before the disease killed her in 2012. One study in the United Kingdom found that 40 percent of gay men with HIV didn’t tell their family members about their diagnosis.