I’ve heard it all before: You must be so happy. I mean, you have such a sweet husband, such a smart and beautiful daughter, and a job you love. You are so lucky. You are so blessed.
And make no mistake: I am lucky, and I am blessed. But I am not the confident and successful young woman you believe me to be. I am not the courageous and self-assured woman my writing may lead you to believe. And just because I smile for the camera—because my Facebook photo albums are full of quirky moments and family vacations—doesn’t mean I am happy.
My smile doesn’t mean I am OK.
Because while I am those things—at least categorically—I am also a woman struggling with depression. And behind my smile is sadness. Lodged deep in every joint, muscle, and bone is a dull yet constant pain. And between my made-up lashes are eyes which burn, leak, and cry.
But you wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t see it. And if you saw me in person, I assure you you “couldn’t tell.” Because I eat well, I work out, and I go out. Because I have a nine-to-five. Because I appear “put-together.” And because I don’t look like a goddamn television commercial (you know, the ones shot in black-and-white where someone is sitting on the floor, crying or clutching their knees to their chest while staring longingly out a window). However, just because I am functional doesn’t mean I am “well.” It doesn’t mean I am all right, and it doesn’t mean I am OK.
Because inside, I feel suffocated. Inside, I feel trapped. Inside, I feel emptiness, I feel numbness, and I feel nothingness. I am as full of feeling as I am void of it.
You see, while you see an ambitious woman, a studious woman, a strong and hard-working woman; while you see a loving mother, an engaged mother, a mother who is blowing bubbles at the park and laughing as her daughter runs across the playground; and while you see good wife, a good friend, and an outgoing and outspoken persona, it is what you don’t see that matters. It’s what no one sees that makes all the difference.
What you do not know is my “work ethic” is a shield. I use work to avoid my thoughts. I use work to avoid myself. And I use work to avoid life, because when I am working—when I am moving—I am distracted. I do not have time to listen to my inner voices of fear and loathing, of hatred and disgust, and of self-doubt. I am able to avoid the pain and hopelessness and thoughts that accompany silence.
What you do not know is that my smile is fake. I wear it to make others comfortable around me and to make myself comfortable around me, because no one wants a friend who is downer, a wife who is a burden, or a mother who is a buzzkill. No child wants a mother who cries during teatime or snaps and yells for no reason. So I smile when I dig through dirt with my daughter, even if my mind is drifting to dark, scary places. I smile while I push her on the swings, even if inside I am crying, even if inside I am dying. And I smile and laugh while we play hide-and-seek, even if secretly I want to disappear and hope I am never found.
And what you do not know is that Kimberly Zapata, writer, is a persona. The real me is fragile. The real me is broken. I am anxious. I am scared. I am uncomfortable. I am uneasy, and I am self-conscious—self-conscious to the core.
But that’s the thing about depression—you cannot always see it. Depression doesn’t always look like the “sad-looking” girl in school. Depression doesn’t always look like the quiet guy sitting alone in the corner of his room while his family hosts a party. And just because someone is depressed, it doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. It doesn’t mean they are lost or lonely, and it doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to live for. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to be happy about. Depression appears in many places. Depression has many faces. It does not discriminate, and it knows no bounds.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition, Mental Health America (MHA) is encouraging people to speak up about how it feels to live with a mental illness by tagging social media posts with #mentalillnessfeelslike.