I’ve gotten to know Kate a bit through a shared online writing group. She’s basically amazing. Ask her about her stage makeup (is that what you call it when you can transform yourself completely with makeup?) or about her taste in fairy wings and you’ll get an answer from an expert. I asked her to share today about her depression, because if you look only at her social media photos, you’d have no idea she ever feels anything but jaw-droppingly put together. And I think that’s the way certain health elements can be — hard to sympathize with because a person is able to get through a day or may show few outward signs of distress. But we on the outside have no idea what it took for that person to do what had to be done.
Here’s Kate’s post, and please help her know her voice is important by showering her with glitter and love in the comments.
I turned my depression into a hashtag.
Because “real” depressed people prove how depressed they are by advertising it on the internet for all to see and scrutinize. Ahem. Just kidding.
Actually… I did do it for the sake of visibility. By definition, a mental illness originates in your brain. And because, like most humans, I keep my brain stored between my ears, it’s hard to know what depression looks like. It’s like bronchitis; I can’t see the tiny cactus spines growing in my lungs, but I feel them trying to claw their way out of my chest like a baby xenomorph.
Depression is like a metaphor wrapped in a cliche cultural reference.
The way people view depression is through the lens of popular culture, which hasn’t been especially kind or empathetic about it. Portrayals range from demented invisible rabbit hallucinations, to montages of tween girls sitting in their pajamas, staring out the window. Granted, the latter is more relatable to the truth about depression, but it isn’t the only truth. I still have good days, even when I’m fighting depression. I still leave the house, I still eat meals, I still talk to people. Depression just makes all of those things extremely difficult. That isn’t hyperbole; I have to talk myself into following a routine, despite feeling like the saddest doll in the doldrums — or I wind up feeling like I am actually losing it. Like… I’m not even remotely in control of my body or brain. This we will call the “danger zone”. We do not go to the “danger zone”, for it is dark and full of terrors.
But despite running a blog dedicated to Anxiety and Depression advocacy and awareness, I don’t find myself able to talk about depression as readily as a seasonal malady. It’s too difficult to make people understand; it’s not just being sad all the time. It’s just as painful as have a physical illness–sometimes more so. Which makes people super uncomfortable, like they don’t want to talk about me having a problem in my brain because that idea is just gross. …and yet, on Facebook, people talk about the color of their mucus and how many times they’ve thrown up.
Excuse me! Gross! You’ll talk about bodily fluids, but you won’t even listen to me talk about pain that you can’t even see?
I have lost friendships over depression. But, despite the temptation, I have never disowned a friend for having pneumonia. Why is this disconnect between discussing physical vs. mental illness so very rift-like?
It makes me want to vomit. So… I turned my depression into a hashtag of my own invention: #7daysoflight
I committed to one week of total transparency about my depression–but I advertised it as a beauty campaign (because remember, people think depression is icky). I pledged to spend one week posting one photo a day of myself in an outfit, complete with hair and makeup. Naturally, there are people who do this every day of their life, and I applaud them for it.
When my depression is at its worst, the thought of putting on makeup is frankly just impossible, let alone curling my hair and picking out clothes that actually match and aren’t made of Lycra.
I feel better when I am in full regalia, however, so it made sense to me that spending one week keeping myself together physically might help me mentally. And help me be SEEN for once.
It did help me feel better. It also didn’t. The thought of having more to do in the mornings was stressful, which meant starting my day already frustrated. It meant pulling myself out of bed and climbing a hill made of lipstick tubes and bronzer and fake eyelashes–for a picture. To put on the internet.
Did it help people really see me, though? Not as far as I can tell. Because I didn’t make it a conversation. I made a gallery of seven photos, each showing a day of triumph, which was very visible to me–but I never talked about how I had championed my depression each day. I just posted seven versions of my face looking more put together than usual.
What does a depressed person even look like?
I don’t really talk about having bad days on Facebook in general, and I curate my image so carefully on social media that there aren’t even any candid photos of me, really, unless they were approved before someone posted them. Because never do I want to appear as anything other than this carefully woven basket-case. People know I’m “a mess”, but if you look at my profile, it’s unclear if I’m messy because I’m constantly painting, or because I have assumed the cliche title as compliment bait.
And admittedly, I like attention. In certain controlled situations, the likes of which I have created with my own cunning. But I’m an Introvert as well as depressed and anxious, so I don’t actually like baring my real problems.
That’s where we have a huge problem with mental illness visibility in the first place: the people who suffer do not want to even attempt to be seen, because people without mental illness do not want to talk about it. That’s what it feels like. So we don’t speak up about what it’s really like to be prisoner to your own body. So the stigma holds, and we hear people called “crazy” because the victims are invisible.
I have a confession to make: I cheated at my own challenge. I took a day off of the internet. I sat around in the comfiest clothing I own, and I went nowhere near social media. And the next day, I posted two photos: one I claimed was from my internet-free day, and one from that day. The internet-free day photo was actually from several weeks ago. I wanted to be invisible.
But what I am and was feeling over those seven days? Several things, on and off. Most days, even when I’m doing pretty well, my hands just ache a little bit. I’m prone to small headaches, but I combat it with lots of stretching and drinking water constantly.
And when it’s bad?
Joints aching so badly that my hands are nearly numb
A headache so terrible that my body starts to try to put me to sleep
Stomach pains and a severely disrupted digestive system, which makes me wary of all food and not want to stand or walk
Mood swings, which leave me angry or upset about absolutely nothing (or ten times more reactive to small things)
Inability to focus on any one task
My hair falls out in clumps
Heightened paranoia and dastardly intrusive thoughts
Little or no enjoyment of things I normally like
Panic attacks, which leave me short of breath and hyper-aware of possible triggers
The list goes on… and that’s just what depression does to me, nevermind all the symptoms of anxiety that I experience on a particularly rough day.
Yeah. It’s gross. To live it.
But despite being frustrated that sometimes I am very sick, I’m really not ashamed of it. Because there is no room for shame in my body when all that other stuff has taken hold. I’ve failed myself in only one instance lately, in this seven day challenge: I didn’t allow myself to be visible. To turn a phrase, I advertised the armor instead of the war.
I spend so much time listening to my body and validating my own feelings, and yet I didn’t extend myself that courtesy at a prime opportunity. So now, my depression is still invisible, and I have seven pictures of myself looking put-together, no different than the tons of selfies I take on a regular basis (I’m team selfie — if you feel good about yourself, there’s no good reason not to share that with others!).
The truth about becoming visible is that I have to overcome my fear of appearing broken. Sometimes I am broken, and sometimes I just want to tell people that I’m not doing very well, but that I’m working on it and not to worry.
In order to de-stigmatize talking about mental illness, I can’t rely on other people to see the truth behind the projected image. I have to change my language to a format the general masses can understand (and it has nothing to do with bodily fluids).
So here’s what I am today: not broken, small headache, and out of all the joints in my body, only my fingers are aching. Outfit? Lycra pajamas–but they’re matching. No makeup, no intrusive thoughts. Hopeful, overwhelmed, but putting my energy towards letting go of today’s fears and embracing the gifts of the day.
See? That wasn’t so bad.
Bio: Kate is a Portland-based writer, artist and mental health advocate. She is appreciative of Jane Austen, a coffee snob, and a lover of Young Adult fiction. Visit her at thehonestbrain.wordpress.com for more information about her journey to better mental health, as well as testimonies from other mental health champions.