By Lizbeth Perez
Smiling Depression…Nothing to Smile About
“I know it seems like I'm this strong person who can get through anything, but inside I'm fragile. I've had so many things thrown at me,and each one has only made a crack. What I'm afraid of is shattering…” –Unknown
Mental illness can best be described as the awkward cousin in the family of illness. It's tough to discuss, tough to understand and tougher to admit to dealing with… At least, that’s how I always felt. So much in fact that even my closest friends and relatives never had a clue (and many still don’t) that I’ve been struggling with this demon that goes by the name of depression my entire life. Ironic, really considering I was named “Most Cheerful” of my graduating class for both grammar and high school by my peers.
Perhaps it’s difficult to explain what's going on in your own head to someone else, even in a perfect setting of mutual respect and willingness to listen. For me, mental illness is a constant companion that refuses to leave. It's a houseguest I didn't invite, the last kid at the party, the drunk guy who threw up on my white suede couch and won’t stop yelling at my boyfriend. Most people don't know I'm sick, and I typically like it that way. But it's time that someone talked about mental illness — the experience, not the theory. I'm not "crazy" or "disordered,” but I do have a disease, and like any other, it takes its toll…
I was diagnosed with depression when I was 19 and in the military, but I had been dealing with the effects for much longer. Maybe it first showed in elementary school, when I would cry because I was thought I was ugly (overhearing it from family members or other kids around my age) or perhaps it was my ballet teachers telling me how much potential I had, but needed to make more of an effort to lose “just ten more pounds” (I’m 5’1, and back then weighed no more than 112lbs tops…at my heaviest)
I was too smart for my own good from the beginning, an only child and a ridiculous over achiever. All I wanted was love and acceptance from my parents and did my best to impress them. Because of this I alienated many children from me from the beginning, so much in fact that I remember once reading (years later) an old progress report where a teacher wrote that she was worried about how lonely I was.
It was my preschool teacher and I was three.
On the outside I was a joy to most. I was (am) always smiling, cracking jokes, traveling, enjoying life and surrounded by friends and or people. Many girl friends of mine through the years were always impressed by my confidence, how I had a never ending arsenal of attractive admirers, how I always somehow managed to be in the middle of the most exciting situations. I was smart, so much that I was skipped a grade, I was talented artistically, specifically dance (where I attended a pre-professional dance school) and drawing (I am lucky enough to hold a position as a graphic artist today, as well as paint in my spare time). I’ll never admit to being beautiful, pretty, or even cute, even though I have spent most of my life modeling. (I constantly heard how ugly I was while I was growing up by some of the people who mattered most to me, including the time I overheard my aunt, grandmother, and even my own mother saying how I was lucky I had an amazing figure because I was average/plain at best…)
My life, growing up was a constant contradiction. In public my parents and family built me up and praised me. In private, the proud parents I had to the rest of the world, turned into constant tormentors. I can never remember my parents ever standing up for me in any situation where I truly felt I needed them.
I remember going through one of the hardest moments of my life in eighth grade where a teacher decided to tell an entire classroom full of my peers (as I was getting a drink from the water fountain right outside her classroom and overheard her) say: “Look at her, her hair is longer than her skirt. (I went to private school and was required to wear a uniform, at the time my hair was also way past my hips) She looks no better than a two dollar hooker and belongs on the corner not at school.”
I heard the laughs, and the snickering from half the class, the other half put their heads down because of just how uncomfortable the situation was even at that age…
That day, I will never forget, was a Friday. I spent the entire weekend replaying the incident in my head until I finally had the courage to tell my mother. She was furious (so it seemed) and vowed to go into school the next day, but not until after she took me to get a haircut… The next day my mother went and had a meeting with the principal. She went in armed with a list of names of witnesses and an account of what happened. The principal begged my mother to let it go, since it was the first year the school was open (it had merged with three other local private schools) and that she would be terminated by the end of the school year.
It was October, and the following year I was to start high school.
My mother agreed to these terms and found it more than fair. I didn’t. I never received an apology (from the teacher, or school) and instead was forced to deal with looks and glares from teachers and students alike the remainder of the school year. I begged my parents to pull me out and send me somewhere else, anywhere, and was told to stop being a baby. I can’t even begin to tell you the names I was called (children can be cruel) and how low I started to feel about myself, this is where I first vowed to never let anyone see my real feelings, cry, or look vulnerable to anyone.
I was 12, and looking back on it now only shows that this moment affected me more than I ever thought possible.
At that point, even though I didn’t know I had depression, I always hoped that each new stage of life would mean an end to the constant emptiness I felt inside of me — graduating from grade school, having friends in high school, joining the military, going to college. But, so far it hasn’t and as much as I don’t like to admit it I don't think anything ever will.
But, please don’t feel sorry for me, or think that this is a cry for help or attention. It couldn’t be further from the truth. My reasons for reaching deep and sharing this with you all is so that there can be a deeper understanding, not of me, but of people like me; the ones who suffer from what psychologist’s call “Smiling Depression”.
Most people have never heard of the term “smiling depression”. The definition of smiling depression is: appearing happy to others, and literally smiling, but internally suffering with depressive symptoms. Smiling depression often goes undetected and isn’t dealt with directly. Those suffering may discount their own feelings and brush them aside. They might not even be aware of their depression, or they might feel embarrassed, or they fear of being “weak.”
The hallmark of smiling depression, or any depression for that matter, is sadness. The smile is nothing more than a defense against feeling sad and a way to try and cover it up. A person could be experiencing sadness about relationships, career, or lacking purpose in life. The sadness could also be a constant, overall feeling that “something just isn’t right.”
In addition, other common symptoms of smiling depression are feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, fatigue, irritability, hopelessness and despair. They may also experience problems sleeping, a lack of enjoyment in pleasurable activities, and a loss of libido. Everybody’s experience is different. Of course, it is also possible to feel just one or many of these symptoms while suffering from smiling depression.
Another way to think about smiling depression is to see it as wearing a mask. People suffering from smiling depression may offer no hint of their problem to the outside world. They often hold down a full-time job, run a family household, participate in sports, and have an active social life. With their mask on, everything looks great, or even perfect. However, underneath the mask, they are suffering from panic attacks, low self-esteem, insomnia and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
Suicide is a particular danger with an individual suffering with smiling depression, who is severely depressed. Typically, people suffering with a classic, severe, depression might have suicidal thoughts, but not have the energy to act on their feelings. However, those suffering from smiling depression have the energetic ability to plan and follow through, which is why smiling depression can be more dangerous than a classic form of depression.
I know I myself, have had moments of intense sadness where I will admit I have wished myself dead. But, I promise the thought of suicide has never been (nor will it ever for me) be an option. I’m too proud of a person to even consider giving up in that way, even with the intense self-loathing I sometimes put myself through. Instead, in order to help and give strength to all of those around me I mask my inner torment with my “happy” public persona.
To the outside world, I do my absolute best to give no hint of my problem — I hold down a full-time job, a part-time job, and I write for Clubfashionista, I take care of my home and enjoy an active social life. But underneath I suffer from secret panic attacks, insomnia, crushing low self-esteem and severe trust issues. In short my depression has never a lying-in-bed, sleeping type thing, I work hard and play hard — I have an active social life. But inside I feel worthless and utterly ashamed of myself.
For most people with depression, the switch between normalcy and a depressive episode can be instantaneous. Depression shows up at parties, on my way to work or even while I’m sitting on the couch watching TV. Sometimes, I start having thoughts so disturbing that I scare even myself:
“What if my father was right and the best I can ever do is be with a man that beats me because no one else will ever want me? What if I really did do something to deserve my ex trying to hit me as my mother so eloquently put in my younger years? What if everyone who ever gets near me only wants to use me, either for money, sex or because they’re lonely and need validation? What if I should have settled a long time ago since there really is no such thing as happy endings…and if there is I’m definitely not the one to deserve it? Why should I trust ANYONE if everyone I have ever loved or cared for has hurt me so deeply…what’s to stop a complete stranger from doing the same, or worse?”
And yet, as hard as it may be and even knowing I may never be able to silence these thoughts, I’m doing the best that I can to move forward with my life and urge anyone that is going through depression to do the same. I won’t pretend that it’s not a constant battle, or that it’s easy and I promise that I’ll never be the person to urge someone to “just cheer up, it could be worse."
Instead, I’ll be the one to urge you to try and seek help, either from a professional or a trusted friend, this doesn’t mean that you’re weak or that you’ve failed. Instead look at is as such that you deserve to be happy like everyone else. Avoid being alone without something to do, or make sure that you have someone around that you can trust. Try and learn your warning signs that tell you when to leave a situation, like if you’re feeling lonely or suddenly find yourself fighting back tears.
Overall, depression is an uphill battle for everyone who goes through it. And though my battle is far from over I’m doing the best I can to move forward and (trying) to realize I’m not a bad person or worthless. One. Day. At. A. Time.
***I am not a health professional of any sort nor do I claim to be. If you or someone you know is demonstrating any warning signs of suicide with depression, either call your local suicide hot line, contact a mental health professional right away, or go to the emergency room for immediate treatment.