When I first began telling those outside of my immediate family and closest friends that I was taking a leave of absence from work because of my depression, the most common reaction was surprise. In addition to telling me that they had no idea and hadn’t seen it coming, many people lamented that they had not recognized the signs. After hearing this statement multiple times, I asked someone what signs they were referring to. Could they perceive them now and, if so, what were they? The person looked at me blankly. They were at a loss to articulate exactly what signs or clues they had missed. And I reminded them that was by design. I’ve spent over 20 years hiding the manifestations of my depression, pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t. At this point, I am a really good actor.
The effort that it took to hide my depression was more exhausting than the depression itself most days. Most days, thankfully, I am not experiencing a depressive episode. I can count the major depressive episodes that I have had in my life on one hand. The overwhelming majority of the time that people have spent with me has been when I was not depressed. However, I have always known that a major depressive episode (MDE) could occur at any time. There is no clinical test for depression and no known cure. Instead, there is knowledge about what factors are associated with experiencing an MDE and awareness of what steps I can take to try to mitigate the effects when I feel one coming on. It means, though, that I am in a constant state of high alert, always trying to outrun the darkness.
Hiding my depression over the years has been more about convincing others, and myself most of all, if I am being honest, that the darkness wasn’t breathing down my neck. The act was about showing that I could live without fear of another MDE and with the knowledge that, if it did happen, I would survive it with my dignity, reputation, and life intact. From time to time, I have shared with others outside of my inner circle that I have depression. Typically, I share this information by choice. There have been other instances where I felt compelled to reveal it.
I struggle to find words that adequately articulate the amount of effort that this act of constant hiding consumed. Even when I was feeling well, I was still expending energy to maintain the illusion that nothing was wrong under the surface. Although I am being transparent about and sharing my experience now, I am still expending energy, this time to suppress the feeling that I must continue to put on a show. I continue to be a great actor.
The good news is that the answer in this situation does not require anyone to develop a Sherlockian aptitude for both inductive and deductive reasoning. It necessitates something a lot more difficult to cultivate, emotional intelligence and situational awareness, going beyond superficial greetings and creating and holding space for people to be open, honest, and authentic about their feelings. Fostering an environment in which people, like me, can feel comfortable sharing our experiences without the fear of judgment or retaliation (in the sense that we will have things taken away from us as a result of our transparency, like job opportunities or friendships), is key. If you do that, you contribute to creating a world where none of us has to pretend.