The act of pretending to be something you are not, or are not feeling, is a skill in which I’ve become highly talented. It’s something you learn over the years from the inception point of your depression starting. Most people refer to it as wearing a mask or putting up a facade – both of which are good responses, but for me, they just don’t pinpoint the act enough. In my mind, putting on the mask of a ‘happy person’ when I’m low isn’t right, because I’m fundamentally still myself and my thoughts are still controlling how I act.
It’s more about morphing my words, face and personality into something more appealing to others, rather than wearing a mask. I can’t pretend to be somebody else, because my thoughts and actions will remain the same and this is exactly why it gets so tiring. If it was as simple as putting on a different coat, then socialising and moving about in the public wouldn’t be an issue. However, I have to work hard in order to hold up the image of a ‘stable member of society’.
It has taken a lot of practice. In the beginning years of my depression I would cry a lot and for seemingly no reason. I could be rocking myself to sleep in bed or standing in the supermarket when the tears came on. Now, I can hold them back behind a thick wall of beta blocking bricks. I would suffer panic attacks from the idea of talking to someone I don’t know, whereas now I can confidently chat away as if there was no issue, because I know that I’ve put those thoughts on pause. What I mean by that is, that I will halt all emotional response until later in the day.
An example of this would be meeting a new person in a familiar surrounding. I can act like a modified version of myself in order to get through the situation, knowing that later that day I will revert back to who I really am and let all the insecurities flood back. In a recent conversation with a relatively new friend, I told of my shyness and lack of confidence. He was shocked and exclaimed that I seemed to be entirely confident in who I am. Such is the practice that has gone into hiding my insecurities. All while I’m chatting to someone my brain is storing up hideous thoughts like an experience bar in a videogame. There I am talking away while…
“You realise how stupid you sound?” – “They are looking at you that way because you’re ugly” – “Don’t move like that, your fat will jiggle and that’s gross” – “You’re gross in general” – “And stupid, why are you even bothering” – “Are you aware that this person thinks you’re a moron?” – “You aren’t an appealing person in any way” – “Just stop”.
And all those thoughts sit there in some twisted energy bank waiting until I can get away. Then they attack my senses and I become a gibbering wreck that doesn’t move for several days. It’s easy to sit here now and say “Well, mental health just lies all the time”, but in the moment that voice gets lost. And it’s all so damn exhausting.
Many people with mental health problems express a wish that others could know how they feel or that when entering a conversation the other person is aware of your internal issues. Because it would all be so much easier wouldn’t it? There’s also a sense that if you were to let out all those thoughts and feelings it would only make things worse – perhaps the other person would feel awkward or maybe they’d think you insane.
It’s ironically depressing that depression makes you more depressed. It becomes a disembodied voice that haunts your every day. I’ve genuinely walked away from people because I felt so awful about myself that I could no longer stand to be in their presence. As someone who is overweight, not particularly attractive, balding, has bad teeth and often says silly things, I generally shy away from social opportunities. Because it’s so easy to judge myself harshly I believe others will do the same.
I’m hoping that in my practice of mindfulness, I will learn to not judge so quickly or so harshly. It’s something I’ve said repeatedly over time, but I believe the first step in coming to terms with any mental health problem is that you must learn to love yourself. It’s very difficult to love anyone else or venture out of your comfort zone when you spend most of your time ridiculing yourself.
Before my daughter died and I spiralled to this place I used to think good things about myself. I thought I was decent looking, I was a great sales person – I thought I could sell ice to Inuits – so I had confidence and swagger, I wasn’t obese and was generally fit. But, as soon as that negative spin comes in, those things fly out the window. And it’s made worse by those around us even when they mean well.
Something I’ve heard more than I care to count is the phrase “We just want the old Dan back”. This is something that came up for me in my counselling sessions recently. It’s something others express because they want the depressed/anxious person to be happy. They believe that the older version of you wouldn’t feel the way you currently do. That’s wrong in so many ways, because that person was eroded by the constant internal and external pressures they place upon themselves. And your continual wanting the old person to return makes the current version of us feel like shit. It’s like you’ve abandoned the person in order to chase something that will never return.
Depression, anxiety, OCD – whatever a person may suffer with – changes them fundamentally. They don’t want it to, but it will because it warps every thought that leaves their brain. This brings me back to my initial point… It’s so tiring trying to be something I’m not, especially for other people. I’m sorry if that changes how I feel or talk or act in certain situations, but by constantly pretending, I’m compounding the pressure and making things worse. Not just for me, but for those around me. If the person you see isn’t really the true me, then we’re all just living a lie.