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Just Because I'm Smiling Doesn't Mean I Don't Have Depression

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I had an interesting encounter recently. Someone who I don’t know very well, but who I instinctively like, asked me what was up, as they knew I had been feeling somewhat below par of late.

It isn’t difficult to know when I’m below par; I splash it all over Facebook. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t, but when I’m in the throes of feeling monumentally low I can’t help myself, and am past caring what anyone thinks. Facebook will keep asking me how I am, and I’m all for keeping it real, and inevitably hit “post.”

Anyway, this person (the one who I instinctively like, but don’t know very well) said, “But you don’t seem like that when I see you.” As in, you don’t seem down/depressed.

That’s probably true, sometimes. It depends how you catch me, and which way the wind is blowing. If I’m in a bad place, trust me you’ll know. My aura will have shrunk to nothing — if you don’t do auras, that translates as: I will seem to have lost my shine, and any sparkle I might usually have. I will seem smaller. That’s because my energy field will be massively depleted. It’ll be because I am exhausted. It’ll be because I am using every last scrap of energy at my disposal to get through each day, which will feel akin to wading through treacle.

If I’m having a really bad day, you won’t see me at all. Because I’ll be at home, on autopilot, doing the most mundane household tasks I can so I don’t have to think about anything. I’ll have switched off, because my system has short-circuited, and I have ground to a halt. I won’t answer the door, or the phone. Partly because I can’t speak, can’t engage with anyone.

Partly to protect you from my darkness, because we both know there’s nothing you can do to fix it, and I don’t want to bring you down.

See? Depression isn’t always selfish after all. Yes, I know all of those things people secretly think about people with depression. It’s both a blessing and a curse having this much insight, let me tell you.

Chances are if you see me out and about, it’s because I am able to be out and about that day, I feel well enough to manage that — or it’s because I have to be, because I’m a parent, and life goes on.

One of the things I think many people assume about depression — as opposed to being depressed — is that you feel miserable all the time, and that if you don’t it can’t be “proper” depression. Cracking a smile can be seen as proof you actually could “snap out of it” if you wanted to, but you just don’t want to. What people don’t realize is that cracking that smile, while welcome, is not enough to send it all away. I wish. Oh God, how I wish …

I can’t expect people to know about “walking depression,” or bipolar disorder, or mixed states. About how I can seem OK, or “fine” on the outside, but can be far from it on the inside. About how I can feel happy and sad at the same time. About how I can get momentarily distracted from feeling sad and suddenly feel happy because I am in amusing company, or I have just seen a rainbow, or the cat has just done something funny with a piece of tinsel. About how once that moment has passed I can go back to feeling really sad again. About how I can’t “just snap out of it,” or “get a grip.”

I do get a grip, incidentally, every day. I know what to do to keep myself on a reasonably even keel. Sometimes it works and sometimes nothing works. It takes a lot of energy, and sometimes it takes all the energy I have. I can never forget I have this illness. It’s a lifelong condition I have to monitor daily. I forget, or pretend I don’t have it, at my peril. I spent many years in denial of having it, self-medicating it constantly, until it refused to be hidden away any longer.

I have stopped wondering why I am this way. I accept that I am. I could point at all kinds of possible reasons why — genetics, upbringing, traumatic experiences, current circumstances. It could be all of those things, or none, that have caused me to be this way.

Acceptance is important. I have my limitations. I have learned to accept and work with those, rather than try to fight them. Some might call that giving up; perhaps in a sense it is. But I think accepting how things are, and working with that, is probably a better route to peace in the long run. Rather than trying to fight for what cannot be achieved.

So, if you meet me on the street and I seem fine, then it may well be that I am fine, in that moment. It doesn’t mean I am faking my fine-ness, or that I have a happy “I’m fine” mask on. My joy at seeing you, or having a laugh with you, is genuine.

It means I am happy in that moment to see you, and that your lovely energy is a welcome distraction from how sh*t I was feeling half an hour go.

I don’t like feeling sh*t by the way. I don’t enjoy it, and neither do I encourage or court it by gloomy thinking. Like I said, I try and embrace optimism and positivity wherever possible. I like to laugh. I like to smile. It’s just that my baseline is fundamentally that of a depressed person. That’s how it is.

I like to think that may change some day, although going on past form it is looking unlikely. It is always going to be part of who I am. What is likely is that this is something I have to accept and learn to live with, whilst not letting it rule the roost. I’m all about being proactive, on the good days, when I can manage it. It’s like storing up positive currency in the bank, for when the rainier days kick in.

In the meantime, please understand that yes, I might seem fine. I might be fine, in that moment, because I’m being momentarily distracted from feeling sh*t. But it doesn’t mean I am fundamentally fine across the board. Because I’m not. I’m not fine. And it’s OK to admit to that, and not feel that I have to pretend otherwise. I have an invisible illness, that is always going to be there. It isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

That isn’t the case for some people who battle depression. It can be circumstances that can plunge some people into a depressive episode, an entirely normal reaction to difficulties in life — change those circumstances and depression can lift. For some of us though, it isn’t about circumstances — although we can still suffer from reactive depression — some of mine is reactive at the moment, I know this. For some of us depression is also an ongoing condition, one which we didn’t choose to have, and that we have to live with, and manage, on a daily basis.

It doesn’t mean I don’t count my blessings; it doesn’t mean I’m a selfish cow.
It means I am being honest about where I am at.

What is a given is that I try to challenge this on a daily basis, and do the best I can with what I’ve got. Some days it feels as if I’ve got quite a bit to work with, and that some kind of progress might be possible. Other days it feels like I’m irretrievably stuck at the bottom of a dark pit.

Ultimately, trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got is all that any of us can do.

Follow this journey on The Little Blog.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: What’s one secret about you or your loved one’s disability and/or disease that no one talks about? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 6, 2016
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