Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Learning to remove the masks we wear

“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” 
― André Berthiaume

“What we share may be a lot like a traffic accident, but we get one another. We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.”
Margaret Atwood

I spend a great deal of my time explaining to people what words like depression and anxiety actually mean.

I fail at this quite often.

In thinking about why this might be, I began showing people this illustrated comic instead to gauge their reactions and see if it increased their understanding of mental health.

It did. It does. In almost every case. 

What the comic so succinctly demonstrates, is that living with a mental health condition is often a question of hide and seek. Of showing one thing to the world and then living a completely different reality to yourself. Sometimes this gets confusing. We try to be good actors, but the issues begin to seep out. Irritability, anger, insomnia, missing work. There are all possible signs that something is not quite right with people, and they are evidence that a person's mental health issues are getting harder and harder to hide. 

No matter how good of an actor they might be.

My professional "bread and butter" has been examining how this works in the life of comedians. In many cases, there is a lot of sadness behind the laughter, and comedy is a way of processing and filtering these emotions. 

But this goes way beyond comedy, and I think is probably as prevalent in the lives of almost anyone who has mental health issues they want to keep "secret." If you break your leg, no one quibbles about taking a day off from work. But "mental health days" are still code for an extra day of vacation. And surely some of us have used them like that. But in reality, they can be just as debilitating. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people 15 to 29, and much of this is also a result of untreated depression. 

There are a number of reasons we strive to keep these feelings secret. In many cases, we don't want to appear weak or vulnerable or perceived as unable to keep up at work or at home. Perhaps we don't want to be a burden to the people we love. Maybe we've tried to talk about it before and been misunderstood.

And so we wear the masks. And they come in many shapes and sizes. That lady furiously typing away with her headphones on is wearing the "busy" mask so she doesn't have to talk to anyone and risk saying the wrong thing. The guy at work who jokes about his drunken escapades every weekend wears the "clown" mask to deflect others away from his addictions and depression. At perhaps most common is the "I'm fine" mask, where people simply change the subject or avoid talking about issues or problems in their lives.

The problem is the acting eventually gets exhausting. We smile through gritted teeth and laugh through internal tears and give people the "I'm fine" routine in the middle of an internal tornado.

So how do we learn to remove the masks?

Mental health stigma has come a long way in the last 20 years, but it still has a long way to go. Some companies have begun investing in mental health programs for their employees and seen their productivity soar. Even "The Improv" which is one of the most famous comedy clubs in the world now employs mental health professionals. People are starting to get the hang of this.

Although talking to professionals is challenging, I think it's even harder to talk to the people we are closest to sometimes. It means stepping out of our comfort zones and showing people something we may not want them to see. Even in relationships, we create impressions. Perhaps even more so than with strangers. We love our "I'm fines" and "It's okay" and "I don't wanna talk about its." They become such a regular part of our conversations that they become clichés.

I've always loved this quote from Tom Robbins about risk.  He writes, “You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one's life. So you lose it, you go to your hero's heaven and everything is milk and honey 'til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That's not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one's clichés.”

So perhaps we need to begin to risk our clichés. To take a chance and talk about things before they fester. To catch ourselves in these "I'm fine" moments and take a chance that maybe, just maybe, someone else has also felt the way we have and can offer some understanding. 

Maybe we're walking right by people that have been there and can help.

In closing, I would like to include a poem from Shel Silverstein. He's known as a children's author. You can believe that if you want. It's a great little poem about the things we share and don't summon the courage to talk about.

“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.” 
Shel Silverstein, Every Thing on It

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