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The Man Behind the Smile

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Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and tried to move your arm, but your hand was useless because you were sleeping right on it?

Now imagine instead that you wake up in the morning, a full day’s work ahead of you, but you can’t move. You’re completely stuck. A perfect mixture of fear, anxiety, panic, frustration and confusion rush through your body like a violent rush of adrenaline. But this adrenaline rush is different — much different. You tell your body to move — it doesn’t.

OK, you’ll be more specific next time.  

So you tell your leg to swing off the side of the bed, because that’s a start; but your leg refuses to move. No amount of willpower or mental thrashing can change that. You can’t even turn your head enough to check the time… is it morning, afternoon or evening? You don’t know, because sometimes your alarm just doesn’t wake you up at all. The fear of finding out what daily appointments you’ve already missed is daunting, and further adds to the endless cycle of fear.

Depression is one of those vicious, relentless illnesses that attacks the mind and all that encompasses it. Each story is different, and yet each seems to contain the same thematic elements that ultimately binds them all together: a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and a frustration and self-loathing that accompany the inability to do the things and be the person you used to be. Society, looking on from a comfortable distance, doesn’t understand why we can’t handle the demands of daily life. Well, welcome to the party: neither do I.

Depression gnaws away at the mind like a parasite. It tells its helpless and unwilling subject, “Nothing can help you now… It’s all your fault, why are you so weak? Why can’t  you just. be. normal.”  The “normal” that the depressed victim searches so longingly for can’t even be described. Some people, like me, can barely remember what normal is. All we know, in the deepest, darkest place in our hearts, is that our routine — or lack thereof — isn’t normal. The only “normal”I know is that when circumstances get better, ultimately, it can always get worse.  And when things hit rock bottom, I’ve only just begun my  journey to and from the hell I’ve become so familiar with.

You know the caveats — the signs and the warning bells that tell you when a relapse is just over the horizon. You go to bed at night with an awful, empty feeling that reassures you tomorrow will be even worse than today. You wonder if you’re even going to wake up in the morning — often, you simply hope you won’t. The less time you spend awake is more time you spend in the peace of sleep — unless, of course, nightmares and night terrors like to sleep with you.

When depression sets in and makes its dwelling in your mind or your heart, you start to lose the natural motivation to continue living. You sluggishly roll over and bury your head under a mountain of pillows and blankets that frequently end up strewn across the room. The sunlight which you so desperately try to block out only serves to remind you of your mundane and crushing responsibilities, of each second that is lost in the void of forever.

The anxiety doesn’t help motivate you to action. No, it just keeps you stuck. After all, why suffer today’s problems outside of bed when all you will do is make them worse by trying You’d be better off locking yourself inside until, maybe, just maybe, you get better. But no. Your body begins to shut down again, even after sleeping for an ungodly amount of time. Eight, nine, ten hours of sleep? You wish — the reality is, you’ve been sleeping heavily for over 16 hours, more than two-thirds of a day, and you’re still deathly tired. You remember several hours later while blankly staring at the white ceiling that you still haven’t eaten. But you’re not even hungry, so why exert your precious energy doing so? You don’t even see the bathroom all day, because there’s no food or water in your body anyway. You’re starving, dehydrating yourself — and you know it. But your body doesn’t feel anything… can I feel anything? This question becomes the theme of the rest of the day, as you wonder whether anything in your day… your year… your life is actually going to turn out alright for a change. All uplifting and happy memories you used to so preciously cling to no longer make a difference to you. All you feel is the present moment, the present that offers no hope for tomorrow and the tomorrow you wish could wait a little while longer. But tomorrow will come, with or without you.

The inner dialogue in your head continues to pound louder and more discouraging with every passing minute. Even if I wanted to do anything, I probably couldn’t, because I haven’t eaten or drank anything in a day anyway. A “normal,” healthy male my age requires a certain amount of calories a day — I’m lucky if I get even a tenth of that. And even if I managed to get out of bed, I would probably collapse on the floor out of sheer exhaustion. Even if I made it to the fridge, I would probably throw up whatever I tried to force down my throat anyway. Even if I made it to work, I would probably end up taking sick leave in an hour or two anyway. Even if I talked to my family, friends or loved ones, I would probably begin to break down in front of them — again. Even if I lay down with a book or a set of prayers, I probably couldn’t focus enough to make them worthwhile, anyway. Even if I wanted to.

Maybe sometime in the evening, say, after 5 or 6 o’clock when the sun has set once again, you muster up the God-given energy to sit up and nervously peer through moist eyes at your surroundings. You glance down off the side of your bed, and, taking advantage of a courageous burst of energy that may not come again, you jump. You jump, hoping your body will be forced to function properly, if the two options were to stand or to collapse in a pathetic pile of flesh and bones. You jump, thinking of all your poor brothers and sisters who jumped before you. You jump, not sure whether you’re looking for an end or a beginning.

I have been diagnosed with a laundry list of mental and physical maladies. These include but are unfortunately not limited to clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dermatophagia, Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (jaw joints) and kyphosis (hunchback). I’m not exactly the model of health, but ever since my childhood I have striven to be the happy, joyful person everybody already thinks I am. I believe deep down inside, even when my depressed body and mind try to convince me otherwise, you are the person who you strive to be, even if you haven’t quite reached that point yet.

My childhood wasn’t a happy one; although I struggle with undiagnosed memory problems, both short term and long term, I can recall but a few memories of my youth completely filled with tears and despair. My most vivid memory is the toddler me, screaming and jumping on my bed for hours during the dead of night while my helpless parents could only shut their door and hope for an end. I first announced I wished I was dead when I was about 5 years old, traumatizing my poor mother. I tried holding my breath a couple of days later in an attempt to knock myself out. I almost drowned in a pool accident over the fourth of July a few years later; all I can remember is the peaceful feeling of slipping out of consciousness, only to be rescued by my courageous and loving father, who gave me another reason to keep living.  I “ran away” from home several times, but had nowhere to go to except return to hide under the outside porch or my dusty, dirty bed. I thank God I can’t remember the rest of my childhood.  I was excruciatingly miserable, but didn’t even realize it — how could I, since I had never even known what it was like to be happy in the first place?

Everyone knew and identified me in middle school as “the boy who always smiles.” Some people would ask me, sometimes puzzled, sometimes thoughtfully and sometimes jealously, “Why do you smile so much?” I had stepped outside of my comfort zone by entering an environment outside of home, and I had just begun the process of making and maintaining friendships with people around me.

But it wasn’t meant to last.

High school quickly approached, and the more obvious signs of mental instability began to manifest. Violent outbursts among family became more frequent. In ninth grade I made my mother and all four of my siblings cry when I broke down and collapsed on the kitchen floor after feeling the touch of my father. Breakdowns in public began to occur. Once, I yelled unprovoked at a teacher I had always gotten along with. I did this in front of the entire class, who was visibly horrified that the nicest, shyest kid in school was screaming at the top of his lungs at the Dean of Students. My life was beginning to spiral out of control, but I wouldn’t let myself recognize that: I had just begun a new life of my own — it couldn’t be over so easily! I began to lose my friends, and the ones that stuck around I treated poorly. Growing desperate, I joined support groups online. I frantically tried everything I could possibly think of in the hopes of a better life, a fresh start. I left my high school in eleventh grade to homeschool myself, only to return in twelfth grade with nothing but regrets. When all my friends chose local colleges, I picked a college as far away as I could get — Kansas — in the hopes of starting a new life.  But the same old problems just returned, in greater force and magnitude.

But both the best, and the worst, aspect amidst my mental (and soon, also physical) deterioration was this: Nobody but me knew. Me — and only me — understood me. It was my secret. I began to even selfishly pride myself on just how well I could hide my secret of my misery, both in private and in public. Friends, family, even perfect strangers might approach and tell me just how my happiness was evident in the way I lived, and they wanted to grow to be just like me. Through a clenched smile, I would think, “Oh, hell no you don’t” as my lips sang a different tune. I was the “master of disguises” so to speak, and with each person I fooled, the more meticulously I perfected my mask.  This illness grew to be so bad that now I can even convincingly fool myself; on the good days that I can function normally, I can tell myself and others that nothing is actually wrong with me, and that I’m better now. This optimism lasts until the sign of a resurgence of negative mood; then as reality returns, my self-imposed lies come crashing down around me.

I was the happiest kid. To most people, I still am. If you asked them about me, they might say, among other things, that I am “always happy” or “never stressed.” That’s because whenever they see me, it is mostly on the days that I am able to garner enough energy to step outside with a bright smile and a song on my lips. And the energy it takes, even to fake normality, is enough to sap my energy for days, casting me back into the relentless rhythm of unrest.

At the same time, however, my smile remained even though my energy and my happiness melted away. But, why? My smile had become part of my identity: if you thought of Ryan, you thought of a goofy grin and a spontaneous, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. I can’t lose that precious part of my identity: what else is left? My smile, which looks no different to a spectator on a good day than on a bad day, was my escape mechanism. When everything wasn’t alright, my smile would reassure everyone else that it was. My smile did for me what I couldn’t do: explain my pain.

I have heard it said, from peers and counselors alike, that you should do your best to “fake it until you make it.” Amidst the more minor relapses (on the better days), this is a struggle but nonetheless possible. On the worst days, a smile is nothing more than taking your two fingers and pulling the sides of your mouth up and out. I have also heard it said that isolation makes the loneliness worse, and therefore you should insert yourself into social situations whenever possible. On some days, social interactions are better than therapy. They can take your mind off your problems and focus it on something different, something better for a change.

But most of the time, for those like me who live with major/clinical depression and anxiety, social interactions do nothing but make the day end even worse. Just one careless slip of the tongue that reveals some deep, dark secret about myself that can never be unheard. Just that one comment from a friend that triggers a slew of unpleasant flashbacks. Just one question from an inquiring friend who has noticed, but can’t understand your eating or sleeping habits; and one confused and nervous lie that seeks to cover up. Just one, observant and often compassionate friend who notices your prolonged, distant gaze and asks if you’re OK while your soul screams out in agony.

I’m just tired.

I’ve just had a rough day.

I sure I just came down with something.

I’m just not feeling well.

Oh, I’m just lost in thought.

It’s nothing, just a small headache.

All these are common excuses. None of them directly imply a deeper problem — some people truly are just having a bad day. The probability of catching a cold or the flu is also very high, especially here in college. But what’s not common is for someone — or you — to be found pulling one or more (or, like me, all of these) phrases out of your pocket to explain away inquiries, something may be wrong. If someone asks me, “You haven’t been around much lately, what’s going on?” it’s often just a flip of the coin which one of these excuses I will choose. And they’re “cheap” excuses: taken at face value, they aren’t completely out of the ordinary and don’t require follow-up. Additionally, even if you did suspect something was awry, you can’t just accuse someone of lying about having a bad week. It was, and still is, my “clever” workaround for telling the real truth when confronted by those who love me and know me best. And last of all, they’re short and simple. They aren’t elaborate fibs that you can get tangled in, because the number one goal when confronted is to get away from the situation as fast and as soon as possible without detection. Or, at least, this is my own common experience that repeats on a near-daily basis, sometimes depending on the season of year; not all who deal with issues like mine handle them the same ways.

I can recall straight from memory incidents in which I have lost, or very nearly lost, a dear friend to this miserable disorder. Sometimes it was me — sometimes it was him or her. Sometimes it was a sudden change in behavior and social habits that tipped me off to a possible issue. Other times, it was a steady decline over a longer period of time. Even as I write this story from a student center in my college lounge, I can identify a few fellow students who display many or all of the red flags for mental illness similar to mine. I have approached some, cautiously (learning from mistakes of the past), and gradually we have connected. This community of like-minded individuals who can not only sympathize but also empathize through shared experience is, for me, better than therapy.  

Even if the build-up in this story is perhaps a bit unclear or difficult to follow, I write all of this with a specific conclusion in mind. If you, the reader (or myself, coming back to read this some couple hundred times in the future) find yourself in this kind of position, do not let this struggle take control of your life. You are more than your struggle, which is only temporary, God-willing. You are not weak for struggling under the weight of this burden – no! Rather, you are stronger because of it! Stronger, because the rest of the world does not even have to imagine the pain of coping with this devastating weight. Additionally, we need you; more specifically, I need you. Without you, I would be alone in my pain. Even as I sit here, for neither the first nor the last time, I take immense comfort in knowing that you, whether you live next door or in another country altogether, can look at my profile picture, see both the smile and the pain in my face, and can say, “Yes, I understand. You are not crazy, and neither am I.”

If you, the reader, have a loved one or a close friend who may be coping with major depression or anxiety, extend a loving hand whenever you can. Depression is a horrible state of loneliness, despair and “nothingness.” Many suicides stem, after all, from not being able to find anything “good enough” to live for. Life may have little meaning and the pain is unbearable without something or someone to live for. Although, for people like me, talking about depression is very difficult — sometimes impossible — just being around to show that you care is often enough. An unexpected or sincere hug, whether or not I am visibly upset, can be enough to change my entire week. Trust me, it has happened to me. If you are very close to him or her — or shall I say “me,” since I prefer to speak for myself and not for all others — be prepared to be flexible in your interactions. Be ready to spend time with me, but also know that even a good day filled with joy, hope and encouragement can be fully draining — physically, emotionally and mentally. Therefore, also be open to giving me space as I need it. My social cues are subtle, but nonetheless they are there. Last of all, please don’t be offended if I become upset or irritated. I am not upset at you — rather, I am just frustrated I cannot properly relay in a way suitable for me my frustrations, my fears, my worries, my anxieties and my true feelings. I want to show I love you and that your care and consideration for me does not go unnoticed. Hopefully, someday in the future, I may better thank you with a clearer mind and from a more peaceful, joyful heart.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Getty image via CasPhotography

Originally published: February 17, 2018
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