You know if you suffer from clinical depression or from bipolar disorder that when you are ill, you are a misfit. No one wants to work with or socialize with or be intimate with a person suffering the symptoms of mental illness. No one wants to endure the rash outbursts of temper, the sudden accusations, the paranoia, the inertia, the hyperproductivity followed by spells of exhaustion, the meltdowns, the sincere apologies which seem hollow, or the multiple personalites.
Depression is an illness of masks. Most of the masks are troubled ones as you can see in Bill Brukner's 1999 oil painting "Mask of the Depression". The illness manifests itself in a variety of facial expressions so that the sufferer has many masks to show the world.
My own most common mask is gray. My wife can always detect when I'm about to go into the abyss or when I have descended by the gray mask that takes over my face.
The masks I am most familiar with are the masks of happiness or of competence that cover the sadness, madness, or feelings of inadequacy I am actually feeling.
Again, in my work as a community college instructor, my workplace is like any other. No one wants to see a sad, slightly insane, or deeply self-doubting teacher. Students don't. Colleagues don't. I assure you, department chairs and other adminstrators don't.
So I wear masks. I mask my sadness, madness, and feelings of inferiority behind masks of passion, competence, and sanity. No matter how I'm feeling inside, I have become highly skilled at wearing the masks I know I must show the world, especially in my work, if I am to survive.
In the moment, in the classroom or in the hallways with my colleagues, these masks are good and necessary.
In the long run, though, they exhaust me. When I am in the grip of mental illness, I sleep a lot. I sleep in my office. I sleep as soon as I get home from work. I have spent whole weekends either lying down or sleeping, trying to get my batteries charged for another day or another week of expending the energy it requires to mask my illness and put on the proper masks for my work and for what social life I have.
Medication has helped me dearly. Medication has helped level me. When I'm on a more level mental plane, I don't need the masks. I don't have to exert the extra energy required to face the world behind masks that hide my true emotional state.
This is a relief. Medication has helped increase my energy. Moreover, it's helped relieve me of the confusion of showing the world a variety of masks.
With medication, my masks of happiness and competence match much of what I feel within myself.
Such continuity energizes me. It's the incongruity that leaves me exhausted and only partially functional.
For other pieces on masks in Sunday Scribblings, go here.
If you'd like to read other of my reflections on depression or secret identities, go here, here, here, here, here.