People seriously underestimate how hard it is to put on a smile when you’re crying on the inside. It’s even harder to go through the motions of life and act like everything’s fine when you’re frustrated with yourself because you don’t know why you don’t feel well. But you know something in your life has you feeling emotionally “off.”
Authenticity is a life value of mine. But it’s hard to feel authentic when the smile on your face is a cover-up for functional depression and a hefty sprinkle of social anxiety.
If I had a dollar for every time someone was shocked when I told them that I’ve had bouts of depression that have impaired my memory of several significant events, I’d be able to afford the mental health professional of my dreams.
I hide my sadness by working – a lot. Those who know me personally will tell you I’m always working on some sort of project or aiming for a new personal goal. I don’t know how to sit still, because when I’m not moving, I’m alone with my thoughts and left to wonder what’s missing from my life.
The best analogy I can think of for how I feel is a cell phone with a battery that is always on 20%. It’s not dead, so there’s no urgency to get it a charger. But it’s working on such low capacity that it has to shut off most of its primary function to keep pushing. In an emergency, I’m in need of help but nowhere near the front of the line.
Is it all in my head?
At the same time, it doesn’t feel fair for me to occupy space in any mainstream conversations on mental health. Despite depression and anxiety being a constant in my life, it’s never been severe enough for me to need any formal intervention like medication. Seeing several mental health counselors who decided I was “doing great” or an “easy client” made me feel like I was overestimating my struggles.
With time, it felt easier to hold on to the façade of happiness than be vulnerable and explain my pain at the risk of being invalidated by others.
Everyday life makes it harder.
It’s hard to pinpoint the specific cause of my episodes. I think a lot of it has to do with me being an empath. I’m regularly carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’ve been spiraling in and out of existential crises since childhood and know that there is an expiration date on humanity and the world as we know it gives me a continuous sense of dread.
Compound that with other things I can’t control, like my social position as a Black woman in a society that sees white males as the default image of an “American,” and I’m screwed.
I anticipate racism around every corner – and dedicate time to wondering how I will have “the talk” with each of my children.
It’s enough to bring anyone down.
At times I think it’s my frustration with how my life played out. I wonder who I could have been if I knew how to commit fully to work or focus solely on motherhood. I’ve heard folks from each side express frustrations or unfulfillment.
But I press on.
I don’t think quitting at either one is the answer. But I know that trying to be perfect at both work and motherhood makes me feel like I’m doing horribly at both. There’s a sense of relief in talking with other working mothers about the downside of “trying to have it all” — even though I find very few with lives that mirror mine in structure.
Through the years it’s become clear that depression is the flip side of the anxiety I experience regularly.
I know I’m on my own in this journey, and I’m making progress by being as introspective as possible.
At this point, I’ve accepted anxiety and depression as a part of who I am. However, I haven’t let that stop me from searching for alternatives that allow me to destress between episodes.
I’m learning to stay grounded.
Once, someone told me that depression is living in the past and anxiety is living in the future. It made sense to me, and it holds up when I keep track of the things I’m feeling.
So I’m working to stay grounded in the present.
Writing helps, and over the last few months I’ve discovered so does walking. Each of these gives me the opportunity to make my abstract emotions more concrete by expressing them through the body.
Taking a walk every day lets me breathe and pause the avalanche of fears I’m dealing with throughout the day. When I don’t walk, I feel it emotionally and physically.
In addition to being more physically active, I’m learning to see the benefits of tapping into my creative side. My writing is more powerful when I’m crawling out of a hole. And I hear many of the greats reported similar experiences.
Despite challenges, I’m gradually becoming more hopeful that one day I’ll find enough peace within myself to make the sad times less and less frequent.
As cliché as it sounds, when you’re a Black mom doing double duty, you don’t have a choice but to be strong.