Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Happy Performance Deconstructed: A Personal Reflection

I think the best thing I can do for myself is to be emotionally honest. I need to always be sure to verbalize my feelings. All of my feelings whether they are of happiness, anger, or pain.

It is too easy -- or I should say too normalized -- to ignore feelings in favor of seemingly more tangible things. I almost think our disregard of emotions, as particularly found in the Black community, is a legacy of the horrors of slavery and then afterwards Jim Crow and other major injustices. During those times of crisis, we have had to be concerned with our physical lives. There were little to no resources to consider our emotional lives. 

Then there is the very real fact that today many of us are still living lives where we have little to no resources to consider our emotional lives. This is a fact that makes me feel guilty. Why should I pause to address when I feel depression or anxiety when there's many people who can't? 

That's a rhetorical question that I don't have the answer to except to say that we have to continue to remember to value our inner lives. Because if we don't value our inner lives and we aren't taking care of ourselves then we won't be good to ourselves or anybody or any cause we truly care about.

The best thing I can do for myself and others is to be emotionally honest. I refuse to be another person who puts on the show of always having my life perfectly together. That's what is expected of me and it is the performance I give to the people.

But maybe it would help even one person to know that I have internal struggles just like everybody else. I deal with feelings of low self esteem. I don't even think I'm aware of the extent to which I deal with low self esteem. But it constantly crops up when I find myself judging myself based on class grades, test scores, awards, acceptance letters, and other arbitrary markers. I wouldn't do that if I knew how to innately value myself.

I also want to be open about the fact that I deal with on and off depression. Something that I haven't told many people -- at least not face to face. I remember once a few years back I tried to tell somebody that I deal with depression (a fact that I had just then first admitted to myself) and their response was that I was lying and/or exaggerating. And that I was saying that as an excuse to try to get out of the fact that I didn't do something that I was supposed to do.

I think that subconsciously that experience taught me to never tell anybody that I ever get depressed. Instead I started to actually lie and say that I was physically sick (a flu or cold or something else) in order to get out of things when really I was just not emotionally able to deal with it. 

I think that I haven't been very transparent about the fact that I deal with depression because it's just not a cool thing to admit. Depression is often coupled with weakness and frivolity -- two things I don't necessarily want to be associated with. 

Also when I'm depressed I realize that it's invisible to everybody apart from myself. Nobody will ever know unless I actually say something. And even then they probably won't believe me. And the reasons they don't believe me vary from the fact that mental health is treated like a joke to the fact that supposedly Black women are always happy and are actually supposed to be encouraging everybody else. In any case, my individual testimony is not given any weight although I know my mental states better than anybody else does. 

And then there's also the fact that or me I am more likely to experience depression during the times when I am "supposed" to be really happy. For example, I usually get depressed when I win recognition for something. I get depressed when I'm about complete something (like a degree). I get depressed when I find myself in many different leadership positions. I get depressed when relationships start and end. During times of high stress, I get depressed. 

That's my coping mechanism. Maybe it's hormonal. Maybe it's about brain wiring. Maybe it's about what I've subconsciously taught myself to do. But I know that I've been this way since I was thirteen years old. That was when I experienced my first depressive episode. 

Recently, as in a few days ago, I experienced a depressive episode that perfectly timed with an awards ceremony. And I think what makes it worst is that nobody is looking for sadness at a time like that. They look for and only see happiness and satisfaction and so there is no room for any discussion about depression or anxiety. 

A lot of people ask me all the time: Danielle, how do you do everything? Why are you perfect? 

And I'd laugh it off and say no, I don't do everything and no I'm not perfect. Because I still had something about me that was unwilling to be fully transparent. I didn't want to let people know that the only thing perfect about me is the performance that I have perfected. 

But maybe it would help somebody to know that I experience on and off depression. That I sometimes have trouble making it to class because I don't have the emotional energy to go. That I have times of extreme lethargy that I don't think can be put down to an iron deficiency. That sometimes I lose my writing voice (which explains the gap between this post and my last) and that I find it hard to do much except sleep. I have trouble admitting that I get overwhelmed.

And it's almost a cop-out to admit this now when I'm literally under a month away from college graduation. But at least I admitted it sometime. 

So I no longer have to be the strong and perfect person who is always optimistic and happy. I don't have to be that mythical image anymore. And moreover, I don't have to mislead other Black girls into thinking I am that person just so they think something is wrong with them because they experience depression and/or anxiety. 

Maybe this is somewhat of a departure from what I normally write here but in light of recent events in my personal life and unfortunate news that I've heard about through social media this has been on my heart to say. 

Stay strong Black girls, but also stay emotionally honest with yourself and healthy! God bless!

Please feel free to leave comments!

1 comment:

  1. I struggle with mild depression and I acted as if I was okay most of the time. I put on the act for people who don't know me well and my parents because they don't need to worry any more than they do. It's really hard sometimes. I just can't do the fake smile everyday. It's draining, so I feel you on the emotional toll of the illness. Take care of yourself.