In late 2011 I realized what depression looks like.
While importing photos from a family trip to Disney World I came across one which showed “the real me,” the one behind the cheesy smile—the one without props or people to hide behind, without shoulders to hang off of.
This is me in Animal Kingdom. My husband and I were riding Kilimanjaro Safari which, for those unacquainted, is a kitschy, pseudo-safari—half ride, half zoo/nature preserve—through sub-Saharan Africa. (Wrong continent, I know, but stay with me here.) In-between photos of antelope and elephants my husband snapped one of me.
While some may assume this is just a bad angle or an ill-timed shot, it wasn’t. How can I be so sure? Because I remember it. I remember the shitty pizza I ate that morning for breakfast, the ache in my arms and neck from a rough night before, and the overwhelming sense of sadness I felt as I sat in that fiberglass seat. I couldn’t muster a smile or any ounce of artificial joy.
Of the hundreds of photos from that trip, this is the one that stood out. Of the thousands of digital memories I have, this is the moment that haunts me.
What gets to me most is the blank, vacant gaze.
I know that face. I’ve met her lifeless form in mirrors, car windows, and on glass doors. Once or twice I’ve even caught her hollow glance wrapped around the curved surface of a shiny Christmas ball, warped and red but otherwise the same.
Flash forward four years later and that me is still there (is here); I have just learned to carry her better. Some days I am better — thanks to therapy, meditation, and my writing — but some days I fake it, hoping my crooked front teeth and slight overbite hide the lump I am swallowing in my throat. (This is a guilty admission I wish I wasn’t making, but it is the truth.)
And now when I step in front of the camera I hear one of two things: “Oh stop; give me a real smile” or “Perfect. You look so happy!”
Because depression also looks like this.
You see, the face of depression often appears “normal,” because it a) is normal AND b) we try to hide it due to embarrassment, shame, secrecy, or one of a million other reasons. Commercials for antidepressants would often have you believe that we (the depressed) sit on the floor everyday, our knees hugged to our chest, or stare longingly out a window — and, of course, the sun is shining outside, illuminating a clean, well-manicured lawn with a small dog and 2.5 kids. And while I have been known to peek through my Venetian blinds instead of opening them, that isn’t the way I spend every day.
Because depression, while a chronic disease, isn’t a 24/7 disease — making it that much more insidious. I work. I take care of my two-year-old daughter. I go out and hang out with my friends; I attend family get-togethers. I have good and bad days, and while some days life seems insurmountable — and I am short-tempered, snappy, and struggling to swallow tears — other days are fine; other days I play in the park with my daughter, chasing ducks and keeping her from diving into Willowbrook Lake.
Other days I am what is often perceived as “normal.”
And while I loathe the word normal, I will use it here because depression is a disease, a normal disease. In order to normalize it, and to truly #stopthestigma surrounding depression and mental illness, I want to start a social media movement! Take a photo of yourself and tag it #snapshotsforsanity, because whatever you look like today — happy, sad, vacant, stressed, angry or excited — you are okay and you are totally normal.