Today marks a year since the death of actor and entertainer Robin Williams. For many of us, Williams was an integral part of our childhoods, appearing in films that have remained with us and when viewed are like catching up with an old childhood friend. From the Genie in Aladdin to the overlooked, but pitch perfect, representation of Popeye, Williams rarely failed to be anything other than perfect. And that is how, in public, he came across. But behind the laughter was a man with numerous health issues, with bi-polar disorder being a prominent one. Though not Clinically Depressed, depression is a part of bi-polar but they are different mental health conditions albeit with some overlap. Although the circumstances surrounding Williams suicide are not as simple as “depressed man kills self” and there were other health issues at work. The fact that such a happy looking, smiling and joyous man would take his own life after battling for years with an illness that is still not fully understood by the general public came as a shock. But he looked so happy, you might say. And yes, he did look it.
Wearing a mask is common for those of us with depression. To look at me from the outside you wouldn’t likely know I’m depressed and this can be the case for many depressives. The look of happiness, the pretense of being healthy and content, is a mask we wear. We hide behind a costume woven from the fabric of what we think society expects us to look like. We blend in, we hide in plain sight, and we carry on normal lives for the most part. Like functioning alcoholics, we show one face to the world whilst who we really are is locked away. Why do we do this? I can only speak for me, but I do it so I can function.
Look at my life right now: I am doing two shows a day during the Fringe, getting on stage and entertaining people. I have just come back from a UK tour of one show and am entering my final, though deferred, year at Uni. I have friends, I socialise, I laugh, I joke, I appear to the outside world to be a functioning adult with no real worries. And despite all this I am emotionally broken, before I step out of my door in the morning I am filled with dread, with fear, with anxiety. Watch me throughout the day and you’ll find the mask slips from time to time. I am not good at interacting with people, especially strangers. Not in day to day life. It causes anxiety, I never know what to say and I will always spend time laying in bed at night replaying conversations in my head and looking to find the worst possible angle. As has been said numerous times, but bears repeating, depression is not simply about being sad. Depression is a spectrum of emotion and lack of emotion. In any one day I can be hyper and enthusiastic, only to crash and find interacting even in the most basic way near impossible- and when you HAVE to interact that can be difficult and depressives can come across as aloof or even rude. I know full well that people who do not know me well may actually think I’ve been rude, or dismissive, when I haven’t- or at least I haven’t intended to come across that way. This is why I wear a mask.
But I also wear a mask to avoid the “cheer ups” and the “smile mates”. And sometimes, if I am down and quiet friends will ask what’s wrong. Most of the time now I can just say “depression” and that’s enough for people to understand, but then there are those who- in acts of consideration and kindness- try to go deeper. This does not help everyone- if the depressed person wants to go further and talk about it, they will. But usually the last thing I want to do is talk about it, I find the solitude and silence more beneficial. That isn’t me being selfish, and I do appreciate the concern, but sometimes getting into a deep conversation isn’t what I need or want. I am not dismissing you and I truly, truly appreciate the concern.
There is another reason I wear a mask- it allows me to come close to normality for a short period. It is why I go on stage, it means for an hour I get to be someone else who is not depressed, who is doing just fine. You will find a lot of people in the arts deal with mental health issues, some estimates put it at 43% which is double the average for those not in the arts. It can be therapeutic, it can be helpful, and it can also allow us to live another life for a short period of time. The mask of normality.
But here’s the kicker- sometimes I don’t need the mask, because sometimes I AM happy, I AM feeling good. And this can be confusing for people. Some will look on me when I am genuinely happy and think I’ve kicked the depression. I haven’t. This is just a momentary blip. In fact, a day or two of feeling happy and normal can lead to a huge drop again that can last for weeks or months. Its very exhausting being healthy.
One other reason why a mask is used is because of how society still reacts to mental health issues – it can be easier to pretend to be someone you are not than it is to be you. There is still a belief that depression is just sadness as I mentioned, and though sadness is a part of it, it is not the whole. So if it isn’t just sadness, what is it? Again, I can only speak for me, but it can include:
Needing to be around people
Needing to be away from people
Lack of enjoyment
Lack of purpose or direction
Lack of confidence
Desire to self harm
And there are times I can feel almost all of those things simultaneously. Its why sometimes I can’t face getting out of bed- I can’t align my emotions in such a way that allow me to function. Sometimes I simply feel safe in bed. And it is easier to simply put on a mask than have to experience all of these things in public. Some people, myself included, turn to alcohol to alleviate some of these symptoms. Crawling into a bottle numbs the pain we feel, even just for a few hours. But this is never a long term solution as the next day, aside from the hangover, I also feel the depressive symptoms but on a larger scale. So, to cope I drink again. It is very difficult to put in to words what depression is, and this entire piece is only my own experience, my own mask. Others will wear a different mask, to hide a different set of features. And this is one reason why depression is so difficult to understand, especially for those with no experience of it. It is a tsunami of emotion, that can differ from person to person. There is a scale used by the NHS for depression ranging form no depression to severe, but even this can differ from person to person. If you’ve met one person with depression, you’ve met one person with depression and because they deal with it in one way doesn’t mean another person you meet deals with it the same way.
There are myriad reasons why we wear a mask, but it is just a mask. Sometimes it slips.