Happiness may appear to be an odd choice of topic when talking about depression. However, it is the happy times that can throw depressive feelings into the sharpest focus. It’s ‘easy’ to be depressed on a grey day, when you’ve nowhere to go and no-one to see. You can wallow in feeling low and distract yourself with your ‘white noise’ activity of choice, be that reading, watching television, dozing or, like me, surfing the net. How much more difficult it is to be depressed on a lovely, sunny day when you are included in activity with family or friends. Depression does not pick and choose the days to embrace you and, whilst that grey day may indeed invite depression in, it is just as likely to come knocking at a friend’s birthday party, at your parents’ anniversary dinner or even when you’re pushing your laughing child on a swing.
Never underestimate how difficult it is to feign happiness when your brain is a fog of despair and your heart is as heavy as lead. Being amongst people who love you should feel safe and warm but it can feel lonely and stressful when your internal monologue endlessly reminds you that you are worthless and don’t fit in. Smiling and making small talk can cause real emotional pain when every fibre of your being wants to run, run far away from these ‘normal’ people who must be able to see how fake you are, how false, how stupid. Even those who think they understand and who treat you with care cannot see who you really are – or your own broken image of who you are.
Keeping up the facade of being happy when you are feeling dragged down by depression is not simply difficult, it is bone-crushingly exhausting and, in fact, depressing! I have found it a good idea when surrounded by family or friends to try and take some ‘time out’ to rest from keeping up the appearance of ‘normality’. Even if it’s just a few minutes in the bathroom to relax your facade or even shed a tear or two, it can help you cope for a while longer.
When others around you are happy they often feel the need to ‘cheer you up’ and this is particularly true of those closest to you who find your distress hardest to bear. Explaining why their jokes, kindness and consideration don’t actually make you feel any better, no matter how much you appreciate them trying, gets embarrassing and exhausting so I often ‘pretend’ that yes, I feel better and thank them. The dishonesty weighs heavily on my heart but I can’t see a better way out of the situation and so I’m back to painting on the facade once again and using all of my mental resources to maintain it.
A final, and perhaps the strangest, aspect of the dysfunctional relationship between happiness and my depression is the feelings I experience when I’m actually happy. Even during my most severe depressive episodes I can have short periods of being happy or of enjoying myself and this brings on a complex mix of emotions. I feel a fraud, for my depression can’t be all that bad after all; I feel afraid that if people see me smiling they will not believe I’m ill; I feel uneasy because the feelings of happiness do not sit easily amongst my more entrenched feelings of dislocation and hopelessness; and, above all, I feel sad because I remember a time when happiness was a norm for me and I yearn to have that uncomplicated relationship with happiness again, where I don’t feel the need to analyse or justify the feeling and can just let it happen.