I’m the ‘Happy Friend’ With Depression Who You Should Check In On
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I have experienced anxiety and depression for the majority of my life. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I felt “normal” or “well.” I also can’t remember a time when people haven’t responded in the following ways when I disclose I have mental health problems:
“I would never have guessed!”
“But you seem OK?”
“You don’t look like you’re ill.”
I’ve also experienced people questioning the validity of my mental health problems, even health care professionals. I went to my GP last year for a health problem unrelated to my mental illness. She was looking at my notes and noticed I am on antidepressants. She said we needed to look at whether I even needed to be on medication. She looked at me quizzically and I knew what she was thinking.
“You don’t behave like an ill person.”
“You don’t seem depressed.”
“You’re too chatty and friendly to have anxiety.”
I don’t know what “looking” or “behaving” like an ill person is supposed to mean, but I guess what people are saying is that I do not match the stereotype in their minds of what an ill person is supposed to be like. That says a lot about what the stigma around mental illness has done to people’s perceptions of what it means to be mentally ill.
I regularly see a picture shared on social media saying “check on your happy friends.” In the picture, there are famous celebrities who have died by suicide. What these celebrities have in common is that they didn’t seem depressed or look like they were ill.
I have found that a lot of people who share that picture are quick to question the validity of someone’s mental health problems. They understand that hypothetically someone can seem OK but not be OK. But, when met with these people in real life, all that understanding seems to disappear. Their “happy” friends can’t be suicidal when they smile so much.
I am one of those happy friends. I have always been one of those happy friends. And let it be known I am not faking being ill. I am faking being well. I can fool people so much that they don’t believe anything is wrong with me. I’ve been fooling people for a very long time and I am very good at it.
As a child, I was psychologically abused by my parents. I am very open about this as an adult and many people who knew me as a child are shocked that this was happening.
My grandfather was a very cruel and abusive man. He hurt me a lot when I was a child. When I was at his house, I used to play in the street with the other children. Some years later, he was exposed as a child abuser. It was public knowledge that he was sent to prison. The children I played with are now adults who couldn’t believe this had been happening right under their noses. I had even fooled their parents who were in greater disbelief.
I struggled with anxiety as a teenager. I was being bullied, which led to panic attacks and low self-esteem. Nobody knew of my secret struggles. I maintained a large friendship group and high grades, so when I finally spoke to teachers about the bullying, they found it all rather bizarre. I seemed fine. In fact, I was doing well. I had fooled them so much that they didn’t believe me.
This theme has continued into adulthood. The more I am struggling, the more I appear to be thriving. I am struggling with postpartum depression after the birth of my daughter, but I go out nearly every day, I go running a couple of times a week, she is well looked after and we have a very close bond. I seem like I am coping well and on the outside, I am. But inside, I am a mess.
I even managed to fool my husband with this one. Usually, he sees through my act and will be the only person to ask: “What’s wrong, love?” But he had no idea how much I was suffering. It seemed like I had it all under control. And that’s what I wanted him to think. But my perfect façade unraveled when I exploded over something very minor and threatened to get in the car and leave.
The solution seems simple: Just tell people the truth. Stop putting on an act. But, it’s not that simple at all. Happy friends have built an identity around being the happy one. I know I have built an identity around being the one who doesn’t bother people with her problems but helps them with theirs instead. Happy friends spend a long time receiving love and approval for fulfilling their social role. Letting that go isn’t easy. Who are we if we’re not the happy friend?
So, check on your happy friends. We will still try to fool you into thinking everything is fine, of course, but secretly we will be grateful that someone thinks we are more than just “the happy friend.”
A version of this article was previously published on Medium.
Photo by Franciele Cunha on Unsplash