Life’s Great, Everything’s Wonderful—and I’m lying. (Life With Depression)

Smiley man. Business Mask Face Smiling Holding Hand Paper

Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage—and man he was right.

I know because I’m a master thespian. I am but one in a large company of great actors surrounding you right now.

Every single day we put on the most brilliant performances, and no one watching has any idea that it’s all theatre; an improvised tragic comedy staged in real-time in their midst.

There are plenty of us out there doing this work where you live and work and browse, but you’ll probably never realize it—that’s how good we are.

We don’t do it for the recognition, in fact it’s because of what we so desperately want to hide that we’ve been forced to choose this vocation at all. Our gift is crafted out of necessity; a required skill honed in the crucible of awkward moments and buried sadness.

One of the things you learn when you live with depression, is that everyone has a capacity for compassion, and even the most long-suffering people usually reach theirs well before you stop hurting. At some point your pain eclipses their ability to carry it and you realize that your despair is a problem—for them.

This is where the performance begins. 

Because you don’t particularly enjoy being you, you can empathize with those who seem to grow weary of being around you. You learn to read people’s body language, to recognize their ambivalence, to sense their impatience, and you endeavor to play the part of someone else: someone who isn’t depressed.

And when you do, you don’t even need to be all that convincing to sell it. People are usually more than happy to suspend disbelief in order to keep you in character. They’ll play along because that storyline is far preferable to the one where someone around them is perpetually miserable without good reason.

Often people around you will be willingly complicit in the charade; choosing not to look too hard, not to notice the cracks in your facade, not to catch you breaking character in the shadows. 

I’m asking you to not be one of those people.

I’m asking you to choose to really see us. 

When you ask us how we are and we tell you we’re fine—pause to make sure we really are.

Refuse to be fooled by our best, most believable efforts to fool you.

The word hypocrite originally meant “actor”. It once denoted a person who played a part; someone who wore an actual mask upon a stage for the entertainment of others. It wasn’t as derogatory a word as it is today, alluding now to some intentional moral duplicity; the act of showing one person and being another.

And though our deception is not sinister but survival in nature, it is heavy and hurtful and it is never far from our minds. We feel the crushing weight of our duplicity every day. It sits there on top of the already present sadness, compounding it all; adding to the depression the guilt of trying to pretend we aren’t depressed.

And here’s the deal: we probably aren’t going to call “cut” and let you see the real us at this point. We’ve long ago realized the consequences of that kind of authenticity and so you’re going to need to do it for us.

You’re going to have to be the one who sees through the mask, who steps into our space, who looks us in the eyes, and who tells us we can stop acting. You’ll have to be the one to assure us that life doesn’t have to be great and everything doesn’t have to be wonderful and we don’t need to be fine for us to be close to you or welcome in your presence.

The question, is whether or not you believe that:

Are those who are deeply hurting allowed to hurt deeply around you?

Do other’s wounds need to make sense to you in order for you to validate them?

Is there a place in your midst for honest casualties, even when smiling liars would be easier to bear and more fun to be around?

After you’re exhausted by someone’s sadness can you find a deeper reservoir of compassion to draw from?

Because trust me: as tired as you are of our depression, we’re far more tired of being depressed and pretending we’re not depressed.

This performance is exhausting.

We’re ready to retire from acting—for good.

Help us exit the stage.

 

 

 

It’s Okay to Be Sad. It Really is.

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I hope more of your posts are positive. Is “stuff that needs to be said,” always negative or sad? Life is not a veil of tears and then you die. Just my two cents.”

This comment came in to the blog, and my knee-jerk response was to inform the author that these posts are not required reading for her; that they are optional endeavors and that she would be well within her rights to steer clear of the writing should she find it depressing or morose or unhelpful.

But after reading her words a few more times, her sentiments became more and more offensive and more and more abrasive to my heart. As someone who has battled severe depression for decades, I recognized them as words I’ve heard hundreds of times before, in more or less carefully couched ways:

“Get over it.”
“Cheer up, life’s too short!”
“Many people have it worse than you do. You should feel lucky.”
“Lighten up!”

The underlying theme of this woman’s comment (whether she intended it or not), is that someone else’s sadness needs to have an expiration date to be acceptable; that there is a saturation point on her compassion for another’s pain, and that I am in danger of reaching it.

This is the kind of message that makes people struggling with deep wounds, force them beneath the surface or be incites them to mask them with substances and behaviors that may be as detrimental as the wounds themselves.

Every single day I come across people who feel they’ve exhausted the capacity of a loved one’s caring; who feel as though they must walk their road alone, who believe that they need to sacrifice honesty on the altar of conditional relationship. That isolation is about as crippling as it gets and it’s a common residence for far too many people.

When terrible tragedies occur because some otherwise normal person has short circuited, everyone immediately, passionately (and sadly temporarily) waves the flag and sounds the alarm that we need to do something about addressing mental illness, yet it is exactly these subtle (or overt) intolerances for other’s sadness that makes this incredibly difficult.

For the hurting person, expressing grief and pain and hopelessness out loud are not necessarily negative exercises. They are not all self-absorption and fuel for further sadness. Often, being allowed to fully feel and openly express the depth of one’s pain (not unlike a good, cleansing cry), is coping and healing and part of a productive path through it all.

When we, through our insensitivity or exasperation or indifference, make sad people feel guilty for that sadness, we compound their condition and we create a chasm between us and them that feels insurmountable. They at best feel accepted, but only selectively so. As long as they can fake the smile or muscle through their interactions with us they feel safe, but too much honesty for too long, and they realize their time with us is numbered. I know what that feels like.

I don’t know the woman who composed this comment, and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t intend her words to be received as coldly, sarcastically, and demeaning as I received them—which is exactly the point.

Without knowing someone else’s road or the depth and scope of their difficulties, it’s very dangerous ground to scold or correct them, even in the name of them “staying positive”. Should they be privy to the other’s pain, they too might understand completely.

To those who don’t understand what it’s like to walk through the war zone that is severe depression, who don’t know the daily minefields that others carefully and fearfully tiptoe through: give thanks and diligently practice relentless compassion. It like any muscle, works better and better as it is stretched beyond its current capacity.

Another person’s sadness does not cease, simply because you cease to be able to carry it.

Listen to people until you feel you can’t listen any more, and then dig deeply and listen some more. When someone in crisis (whether you deem it merited or not) shares the contents of their heart with you, treat it as the most sacred of spaces. Realize that what you might see as wallowing in negativity, to the one who is hurting, is actually giving hope.

To those who are experiencing profound, chronic, extended emotional pain in any form right now: it’s okay to feel it. It’s okay to say it; again and again and again.

It is not making things worse and it is not part of the problem, even if it is problematic for others. This isn’t about them.

You don’t need to hurry up and get through what you’re going through, you don’t need to “fake it ’till you make it”, and you don’t owe others a sunny disposition if that isn’t the actual condition of your heart.

Pain when shared can be beautiful and redemptive.

Don’t ever be pressured into being silent with your sadness. That would be the saddest thing of all.

Be greatly encouraged, friends.