Masks of Depression

Do you think it’s possible to be going through some phase of depression and have your emotions so locked away inside you that you don’t notice a thing? I’ve written about feeling anger and rage and never associating those feelings with depression, though they were tightly bound together. But here I’m thinking of an earlier time in my life – mostly in high school and college.

Through the teenage years, I sealed all feeling up tight. I guess that was an extension of childhood and being one of those kids teachers admired as so precocious, so adult. The other kids might rage, cry, scream where I would analyze and shake my head at their childish behavior. That distancing got more extreme as a teenager. I didn’t show anything but mildly friendly feeling to anyone. I did feel things deeply, at least fear, anxiety and anger – but these were no-shows externally. I was calmly cheerful most of the time. There was a mask in place, and the only symptom I thought I had were frequent migraines. But that was something inherited from my mother. I knew that because she explained it to me as she lay on the sofa sinking fast into her own depression. I would grow out of that, she said.

There was a gradual loosening up in college when my life seemed to make up some rather amusing anecdotes. I remember laughing off the splintering of my family – Mom staying in New York, Dad off to Florida and the Bahamas, my brother first to the Bahamas, then as far away as he could get – to Australia, (where he still lives) and I to college, never to return to anything like a home.

I would toss off things like that and laughingly move on to the next story. Of course, there were odd things going on too. I had a great interest in acting, but if I couldn’t perform in front of a group, I was lost in what would now be called social anxiety. Back then I called it agony. A screen went up in dealing with even a handful of people I didn’t know. I froze, projecting judgment, condemnation, contempt for me into the first glance of a new person. I seemed cut off by an invisible membrane of pure tension. And naturally, if I could say anything at all, words would be shaped out of the anxiety waves emanating from me. They often made no sense or were some inept joke – I usually felt I wasn’t the one talking. It was the idiot I had already planted in the new person’s mind who carried my name, my face.

Going to parties, especially the arranged mixers between men’s and women’s schools, provided opportunities for total humiliation. I often took advantage of those. The guys would usually arrive first and take up their watchdog stations in some common-room where these encounters took place. A moment would arrive when the young women would march in the door, often in single file and be picked off by the waiting marksmen. Little time to choose, just get to your choice before anyone else did. At one of these, I lurched at an appropriately good-looking blond and proceeded to mash suitably intellectual references into my smalltalk. We were doing OK, that is, I wasn’t assuming an English accent or otherwise going into deep disguise, when she suddenly suggested going for a walk. Aha! What else were these events all about but getting off into a secluded spot for some action.

What she really wanted to do, though, was to play squash. That made sense since she was freshman crew and screamed fitness through every pore. I, however, did not. In fact, sports involving round projectiles speeding in my direction seemed rather hostile. Having the eye-hand coordination of the Hulk and the depth perception of a Cyclops, I was a little off my game – any game, at any time. I also had a way of getting strangely entranced by the sight of a ball heading right at me. More than once I would just watch that thing get bigger and bigger and then – thwack. For example, I took my first tennis serve in the throat.

Squash uses a very nasty hard little ball that shoots around at light speed. This was not promising, but I dutifully took up my position in the court, my confident party mask beginning to crack. Smiling, the blond crew captain launched the ball, and I watched it rocket off the far wall and then disappear behind me where it hit another flat surface, bounced fiercely and punched me in the back. Meanwhile I had sifted the air nicely with a marvelous swing. OK, this happened a second time, though the ball didn’t hit me, and she graciously suggested that it might work better if I served. Sure, I said.

On the second swing I triumphantly connected, only to see the rubber bullet blast through that very spot in the air where my partner’s head had been before she hit the floor. It was now a huge effort of will to keep my mask in place, though a smile, even a little laugh came through, as the blond athlete suggested that a game of pool might be better. We walked off the court to the snickers from the gallery above of two of my roommates who had wandered in. I was immersed, even drowning in shame and humiliation, but still the brave, only slightly reddened face spoke no feeling except a bit of self-deprecating amusement. “I guess it’s not my thing,” I smilingly managed to say.

What I came to understand later on was that it took a vast amount of energy and willpower to keep the natural feelings and reactions bottled and capped. And another burst to construct and keep in place the persona I needed to project to the world. While I was doing this, I was always thinking: Oh, this is just an act. Wait till they see what I’m really like. Of course, I didn’t really know the extent of all I was keeping hidden. That included a lot of pain, hurt, grief, anger that I was not even aware of. After a while, I had to face the fact that I had become a concealed person and couldn’t just put a mask aside. There was too much at stake – it was too risky to relax. Nor was I aware of everything in me that was trying to push that mask aside forever.

How does that painful emotional history break through to consciousness so that at least you start to know there is plenty to work on? What can produce that shock of recognition that begins the process of recovery?

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8 Responses to “Masks of Depression”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    John, you expressed it so well. Do you ever find it difficult to be a whole when there are so many discreet fractions demanding attention? Do you know what I mean? To be comfortable with myself is not always easy, but to be comfortable with others is downright impossible. Because there is so much going on in my head, so many thoughts each with its own trajectory, that every experience has the impact of an antipersonnel IED.

  2. Mighty Morgan says:

    I can identify with quite a bit of what you have experienced through your adolescence into early adulthood. I know that I was diagnosed over and over again by many doctors with their neat little label of “bi-polar” and I acted out the part perfectly. I can say that today I take no medicine and I suffer from no symptoms of any type of depression….The journey you are on is one that will free you from the symptoms of depression…and i say that because in my own journey of self-discovery I came to realize I wasn’t ill…I was just very, very, very misinformed about who I was. When I took the time to get to know how I ticked..I then allowed myself the opportunity to re-wire my thought, ideas and beliefs and with those changes the mental illness no longer had me in it’s devastating grips

  3. I can very much get where you’re coming from on so much of this. I found your words here genuinely moving, and quite profound in parts.

    You describe it all so intimately, so well, with such fearless vulnerability I can’t help but find myself a bit astounded.

    It’s such a hard process, (re)making those connections. Often seems impossible to me even though I know it’s not.

  4. JohnD says:

    Jennifer – I’m glad you were able to break out of that control. What a victory! I’ve been able to kick enough to crack through here and there, but I can’t say I’ve broken free. Getting it expressed however possible is powerful medicine. I look forward to reading more about your experiences.

    John D

  5. JohnD says:

    Mighty Morgan – That is wonderful that you were able to turn around a bipolar diagnosis. I’ve had many hard won breakthroughs and periods of recovery, but they haven’t lasted that long. I’m especially interested in how you managed to rewire beliefs. Thoughts and ideas I get, but beliefs go so much deeper. Thanks for your encouragement.

    Truthman30 – Thanks for your kind words here and in the other comments you’ve made. I’m glad writing has also helped you. It’s a bit mysterious how that works exactly, but writing this blog has helped me enormously this past year.

    John D

  6. Jennifer says:

    Your description of the squash game, the massive effort it takes to maintain control (and the feeling of being a fraud) was right on. I could feel the suppression, the control, in part because I experienced it myself.

    What it took for me to break out of it was a cross-country move combined with a marital crisis. At some point, I couldn’t contain it anymore. I had to write, to speak, to get it out.


  7. truthman30 says:

    Reading the wonderfully expressive and insightful thoughts on this blog, I feel like I am reading a lot about myself and what I have experienced through the course of my life and the black dog which has followed me too. Thank you for writing this blog. 🙂


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