If You’re Happy and You Know It… Or Not

When you’re a child you quickly learn how to pretend that you’re happy when you really aren’t so that others are happy. Does that make sense? No? Let me put it to you this way: you’re six years old, it’s Christmas, you’re super-duper excited as you rush out to the living room and see all the presents under the tree; one by one you unwrap the mysteries. With each one, your hopes of that extra-special thing you had asked Santa Claus for slowly diminish, until finally you’ve opened them all and the one thing you wanted more than anything wasn’t among the gifts you received, but when your parents ask you if you like all your presents, you smile wide and say, “Yes! I love everything!” and hug them both real tight because it’s Christmas and you know how hard your parents worked to make it special for you and your brother and you want them to be happy. Does that make sense now?

So we learn to pretend we’re happy when we really aren’t because we know that if we show that we’re sad it will affect those around us in a negative way and we care enough about how they feel to want to prevent them from being made to feel bad. It’s innocent enough, not dishonest, not necessarily lying about our feelings, not hiding them for any subversive reasons. We just don’t want our sadness, our anger or our frustration to upset the people around us, so we keep it to ourselves, we tuck it away in a dark box deep inside to deal with later when we’re alone. We put on a pleasant smile and add a little honey to the tone of our voice and take comfort in the relaxed and happy attitude of our companions, feeling somewhat mollified that their happiness is, at least in part, thanks to our facade.

As I may have mentioned in a previous blog (forgive me if I did and forgot, and if I didn’t then forgive me for forgetting that I didn’t)…(was that too forgetful?) the clinical diagnosis for my mental illness had earlier been given as Dysthymia, which is classified as “a persistent and prolonged sense of sadness, a continuous depressed mood that causes the sufferer to feel no joy or true happiness, accompanied by low self-esteem and hopelessness”. In it’s mild form it often goes undiagnosed and is assumed to be just part of the person’s life. As of July 2014, however, it has been reclassified as Persistent Depressive Disorder because of the combined co-symptoms shared between Dysthymia and Chronic Depression, which include recurring major depressive episodes, referred to as ‘double depression’, lack of appetite, binge eating, trouble sleeping, social withdrawal, and suicidal thoughts. Mental health specialists have realized that both disorders coexist and as such are not singular illnesses but rather are phases of the same illness.

…. Does your brain hurt as much as mine does now? Science is hard to understand sometimes, especially when the adult part of your mind is trying to comprehend the information but the child part of your mind keeps wanting to wander over to the picture book section of your brain. (… Oh look! A book about a whale and his friend the snail! Fun! …. Wait, what? No! Get back to the technical stuff and quit messing around!! Sheesh! *eye roll*… Sorry about that.)

The point of all that was to explain how hard it is, when, for reasons you have no real control over, you go through each day of your life feeling, at best, blah and mediocre, on average, slightly down and tired of life, or at worst, sad and maudlin and wanting to cry over nothing every ten minutes. But you know that if you let your face show how you feel, if you let it be heard in your voice or your words, then the people around you will sense it, hear it, feel it, and they’ll become concerned for you, they’ll ask “What’s wrong?”, they’ll want to help make you happy, they’ll feel sorry for you, sorry that they can’t help you, and then they’ll feel sad too. Then, as the entire process comes around full circle, you’ll be there feeling responsible because you made them feel that way by not hiding your own feelings in the first place. If only you’d put on your ‘I’m fine’ face, if only you’d worn your ‘happy’ smile, if only you’d used your ‘cheerful’ voice, then none of that would have happened and they would be happy. Now you not only feel worse than you originally did, but you also have guilt to deal with. Not only do you feel responsible for ruining their day, you’ve made your own day worse by being a ‘downer’, a ‘wet blanket’, a ‘party-pooper’. That little two-pound iron weight of mild unhappiness that was sitting on your chest suddenly weighs a thousand pounds, and you’re saying to yourself, “Next time I’ll know better. Next time I’ll smile and be fake-happy and I won’t let my real feelings show.” That ‘next time’ soon becomes ‘almost every time’, which soon becomes ‘always’…. which is a long time to act like you’re happy, especially when you really do want to be happy, but you don’t really feel it inside, because you don’t know how to feel like it for real. You don’t remember how, because it’s been so long since you’ve felt it for more than a moment and even those memories have faded away.  You know no joy outside of a passing, fleeting feeling that comes and goes so quickly you almost don’t recognize it. You simply just don’t know how to be happy.

It takes a great amount of fortitude and stamina to maintain this double life. It’s why people with this type of mental illness often look tired – we have a hard time sleeping and seldom feel well-rested. Continually living the life of a double-agent is stressful. Feeling responsible for keeping your own mood, feelings and personal concerns hidden in order that they don’t affect the people around you is a huge responsibility to bear, even if it’s something no one is forcing you to do and you take it upon yourself. It requires a lot of time to recover from a long day of pretending you’re someone else, which means we tend to want to stay home for the evening because we need to relax and rest. But then we still miss not being included in social outings with friends, despite the fact that were we to be invited we’d likely say ‘no thanks’ automatically until one day when we get up the nerve to say ‘yes, I’d like to join you’.

Well now. What is it that I’m trying to express with this blog tonight? Having gone back and reread it several times, I’m actually not quite sure exactly, but I think it had to do with trying to help you to understand what chronic depression feels like on a regular ordinary day-to-day basis, and how we rationalize the need to hide our feelings from even our closest family and friends, not because we don’t trust them to understand, but because we love them and don’t want them to be tainted by the darkness that clings to us. We hide our unhappiness, our discontent, our irritation with ourselves and our lives, because we believe those feelings to be toxic and we fear that, if allowed to spill out of us, they would contaminate the people who care about us, resulting in their day, their life perhaps, being spoiled, ruined, damaged somehow, and it would be our fault. When forced to see this irrational type of thinking for what it is, yes, we agree that it doesn’t make sense and sounds foolish, but our illness is so ingrained in our psyche that it can’t be changed overnight. So we need your understanding and patience and compassion to help us begin to unlearn what we have learned since childhood: we need to relearn that it’s alright to show our true feelings, it’s alright to admit when we don’t feel happy, to tell someone how sad or frustrated we feel about our life or the weather, or the fact that the toaster burnt our raisin toast this morning and we cried because we were really looking forward to that raisin toast and then we felt like an idiot because we were standing in the kitchen with our fuzzy slippers on crying over burnt raisin toast and the cat was looking at us like we’d lost our last marble. …. ok, well, maybe we’d better not tell them that.

Suffering from Persistent Depressive Disorder, or whichever mental illness your loved one may be struggling with, will never get easy, but it can become easier with the love, caring and support of friends and family who make an effort to try to understand a little about what they are going through each day, what their world looks, sounds, and feels like. No one needs sympathy, or pity, or a crutch of excuses. What we really need… what we want most of all… is empathy, understanding, patience, persistence, and kindness. Please don’t’ give up on us because it seems like we’re trying purposefully to be difficult! It’s only that making changes, facing the darkness, is so very daunting, it’s frightening and at times can seem an impossible terrible thing. When you see us wearing the ‘happy’ face, please be patient when we tell you nothing’s wrong. Look closer at the truth in our eyes if you want to know how we really feel. Don’t accuse us of lying, but please just give us a hug and let us know that you understand we’re not feeling okay and that you accept us anyway. Please don’t make us un-fake the happy facade in public, we can’t handle the humiliation, but if you really want to get us to open up a little, take us somewhere quiet before you ask us to be honest. I can’t guarantee we will, but eventually we might and if we do, please know that you’ve just moved a huge boulder out of our path and made a big impact on us, and we love you for that. And even though we’ve declined your invitation to join the rest of the coworkers at the pub for a drink each Friday for the last four weeks, please don’t stop asking because maybe next Friday we’ll finally have built up the courage to say ‘yes’ and go with you. We have a lot to get through with all the mess in our head. The smallest kindness can be the strongest lifeline across that dark forsaken wasteland we must cross. You never know when one small smile is enough to save someone from dropping into a pit of despair.

“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.” ~H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

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