Depression’s Many Masks
I haven’t always been open about my mental health. As a teenager, I was desperate to maintain my reputation as a perfectly happy girl who excelled in each of her endeavors. During that time, I wrote a lot of poetry. I remember one particular poem I wrote about masks. It was my way of confessing somehow that I carried around a facade.
It’s not that I felt like I was the only one suffering. I knew I wasn’t. It’s just that I didn’t relate to the people who were vocal about their struggles.
In Junior High there was a group of girls that I for a time socialized with during lunch. They engaged in the “emo” culture and were very open and vocal about their depression. One of their rituals was to compare and show off to one another their self harm scars. They talked casually about what implements they used and in what places they did the deed. They compared old scars and fresh wounds like they were trophies. They admired the patterns of lines across their arms and legs like it was artwork.
I did not relate to them.
When I self harmed for the first time, I put a brand new head on my razor so it would be sharp enough to not leave scarring. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone knowing what I had done. Or of there being any permanent reminder to myself of what I did. I planned it carefully, even choosing long sleeved PJs tops and t-shirts to wear for the next couple days.
In high school we studied Sylvia Plath in one of my English classes. During our discussion of her work, my teacher asked the question, “why do people self harm?”
I thought about why I had done it. So I mustered up the courage to answer. I said one reason someone might self harm was to test their limits. That if they had suicidal ideations, self harm might be a way of exploring if they were capable of carrying out the plans they fantasized about.
Another girl in the class immediately raised her hand after I spoke. She said I was wrong, that she had depression and that her medication often made her feel numb and empty inside, and self harm was a way of trying to feel something in the numbness.
Because she was willing to say aloud that she knew this from personal experience, and I was not willing to mention my own diagnosis, her perspective was seen as credible and mine was not. Instead I felt shamed and “put in my place.” In her response she painted me as ignorant.
But I did not relate to her answer.
I took anti depressants, but my therapist told me they shouldn’t make me feel numb if it was the right medicine and the right dosage. And that medicine didn’t erase all the emptiness, but rather gave me a fighting chance to use the skills I learned in therapy to fill that emptiness myself. So I didn’t feel the numbness from my medication that this girl described.
But after that experience I wondered if I was a freak. If I did self harming “wrong.” Why was it that the people who were open about their mental illnesses were emo, or related with the stereotypes of a depressed teenager, or were angsty and listened to angsty music?
What kind of strange breed of depressed was I if I enjoyed pop music and wore pastels and polka dots? Could I really be depressed if I got high grades? If I had a happy home life? If my hair wasn’t dyed bright colors and if I wrote poems about life instead of death?
But I learned something. Depression doesn’t define your personality, and even more importantly, depression doesn’t look the same on everyone.
Back to the idea of a mask, a mask I wore to hide the pain and conflict I felt inside: depression wears many masks. And as cheesy as it sounds, no two masks are the same.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone has the courage to open up about their experience with mental health, only to be shot down by another person who claims their experience is not valid simply because they don’t understand it.
Just because you have suffered with something, doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert on it. You’re only an expert on your OWN experience. So when someone shares their experience with you, it’s safe to assume they are the expert on it, not you.
Depression isn’t a stereotype. It’s complex. And it’s incredible at camouflage. It’s never safe to assume anyone in your life has never had a brush with depression –because no matter how happy or “not the type” they look on the outside, you simply have no way of knowing what has happened to them on the inside.
Some fair weather friends of mine in high school used to make passing, casual comments about how my distress over a low test score or my personal stresses were miniscule because my life was “oh so perfect” and, “oh, a bad grade for you is what, a B+?” And no, I had my fair share of D’s and F’s in math. But even if I had ever been upset over a B+, that friend couldn’t have known what exactly was going on inside of me. I knew lots of high schoolers who cried over a B+ because it meant their parents would punish them. Or because they dreamed of an Ivy League school and every A counted. Or they simply had let themselves down.
Depression is the same. You cannot possibly know all the details of someone’s suffering.
To be truly empathetic, you can’t pass judgement on what triggers a person’s pain, only that they are feeling pain. And that always sucks.