I’ve been living with depression since 1984, and believe me, I’ve heard a lot of ignorant comments about mental health issues. One comment stands out the most:
“What do YOU have to be depressed about?”
I’ve wanted to smack each person who asked me that!
If you have a history of depression, you know how much damage a question like that can do. Not only is it painfully ignorant but it’s also rude. It used to make me feel like I was broken beyond repair – because I didn’t think I was doing enough to “fix” myself (even though I was doing everything I could). I felt incompetent and like I was wasting my potential. I thought it was my fault that I was so depressed.
Now, I don’t hear that question much anymore. But why did people ask me this insulting question in the first place? Because I didn’t come across as depressed. On the outside, I looked like I had it all together.
I was a good student, people liked me, I was an athlete, I had plenty of friends, and for whatever reason, people thought my family life was golden. They assumed I had it all. (And we all know that if you “have it all,” you can’t be depressed, right? Ha!)
WE ALL HIDE BEHIND MASKS
We all have complicated stories, each one of us. We can’t assume that a person has it made just because it looks that way to us as outsiders. It’s not fair, and it’s usually not accurate.
Remember comedian and actor Robin Williams? He suffered terribly from depression and substance abuse, yet he was one of the funniest men in the world. And most of the time, that’s how we saw him, *assuming* he was secure in himself and mentally well. Few knew of the demons that taunted him.
It’s now been four and a half years since he took his life, and he is missed greatly by many people. :’(
His story was more complex than we knew. So is yours and so is mine. For those of us who are unlucky enough to have faulty neurotransmitters dictating our emotions, chronic disabling physical conditions, and/or trauma to work through, we knew some of his pain.
A lot of us are like Robin Williams in that we show our happy faces to the outside world. We appear to be well-adjusted, our lives overflowing with close friends, self-confidence spilling out of every pore.
We are good actors.
I used to be able to hide my feeling with the best of them. In fact, I prided myself on being hard to read. It was a badge of honor. I kept my feelings to myself because I was constantly overwhelmed by their negativity and the power they held over me.
I was also afraid that people would see me as broken or damaged if I shared how I was feeling. I would be admitting that I had serious problems, because we all know that saying a thing out loud makes it true somehow. (Well, not really, but it’s a common thought.)
But then, at some point, I became so overwhelmed that I just could not keep my emotions inside any longer. I couldn’t help it.
My friends (and strangers!) could take one look at me and know what kind of day I was having. I was no longer afraid to cry, even in front of people. I can’t tell you how many coffee dates I went on with friends where the dam would burst and tears would stream quietly down my face, right in the middle of my raspberry mocha.
And you know what? That was good for me. My friends got to know me better. I got to know me better. We had more intimate, more meaningful discussions. We spent less time shooting the shit and more time talking about the important things in life – the kinds of things that deeply affected us, what life was really all about, how to stay sane in a world that seemed, at times, to be insane.
Recently, though, my girlfriend pointed out that I’ve been hiding behind my mask again. I was giving people (including her) the impression that everything in my life was okay. This façade was allowing me to stay away from my feelings.
In truth, during my late thirties and my forties, there was a HUGE increase in my levels of stress and overwhelm. I ended up in a psych unit almost every year from 2004 to 2017, and I considered suicide a number of times.
Trying to hide from my feelings was not working, and I paid dearly for it. I don’t want you to make the same mistake.
HIDING YOUR FEELINGS IS NOT HELPFUL
A June 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study says that 40% of adults reported struggling with their mental health or substance use since the coronavirus pandemic began. That’s a big number, and I’m quite sure it’s only gotten bigger.
The entire world has been thrown into conditions that are hard to navigate. People who have never had a problem with depression or anxiety now have this mental health condition to deal with.
Many of these people have taken steps to get out of their rut, while others still suffer from the ongoing effects of illness, loneliness, joblessness, death of a loved one, and financial strain.
Those who hide from their feelings do so, I think, out of the fear of being labeled, ostracized, and stigmatized. I mean, let’s face it: mental health is not something we talk about much, even when we’re doing well. And no one I know wants to be labeled as “depressed.”
The stigma surrounding mental health issues is still so strong, so incredibly negative, that people would rather suffer alone in silence than share their feelings.
That’s a powerful statement.
I don’t know about you, but when I swallow my emotions, strange things start to happen. First, the physical symptoms appear: tension in my neck and upper and lower back, stomach upset/acid reflux, and headaches that don’t go away.
Then the emotional struggle begins. I start to fight with myself about what to do. I know in my heart that I would feel better if I shared my feelings with someone – isn’t that what therapists are for? – but my head goes wonky and tells me that I will end up feeling worse if I do.
Thoughts like these are deeply rooted. They are the “old tapes” we play in our heads. They tell us we’re worthless, that we don’t matter, and that we don’t even deserve to feel good. They create a ton of emotional pain and do a lot of damage that is hard to unravel.
Fortunately, there are ways to make new, healthy “tapes.” Actively combatting your negative thoughts, thinking ahead, creating goals, and gaining new skills through a program like DBT will all help change your automatic thoughts. And they will give you hope.
A POSITIVE NOTE
Despite the higher numbers of people having a hard time right now, there is one good thing that’s come of it: more attention is being placed on mental health than ever. I’ve even seen celebrities and other role models talk about it on TV.
This is one way to reduce the stigma related to mental health conditions; after all, the more people who go through it, the more they understand it, the less they are to dismiss it or make fun of it.
There’s a very good chance that there is someone in your life who cares enough to listen to you share how you’re feeling. It may be a friend, a sibling, a spiritual leader, your significant other, maybe even a therapist. And you know what? These people WANT to help you.
The idea that sharing your feelings puts a burden on others is false.
Sharing your feelings halves your burden and allows others to feel closer to you. That’s the truth. The hard part is being able to feel vulnerable in front of someone else. That’s why we shy away from such things.
Maybe I’m a sucker, but I believe that most people will step up if given the challenge, so I give (most) people the benefit of the doubt. In fact, after decades of therapy, I am so used to sharing how I feel, that I’ve been known to share too much.
And that’s okay with me. I just tone it down a bit. But if I’m having a conversation with someone – whether it’s a good friend or a stranger at the supermarket – and the topic of depression or mental health comes up, I will be a good listener. I might even share some of what I’ve learned over the years if I think it will help.
You don’t need to hide from your feelings; they’re in there, regardless of what you do with them. You can either let them out so they stop swirling around in your head and making you crazy (pardon my French), or you can push them deeper inside. If you do push them down, be prepared – there will come a day when they burst out of you, and it will be ugly.
So give yourself a break already. You’ve been struggling long enough. It’s time to open up so you can accept the healing that is just beyond where you are right now.
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