There is a stereotype representation of comedians as ‘sad clowns’, with the notion that the jokes, pratfalls and funny faces are just a mask to hide their true feelings of melancholia, self loathing and crippling anxiety. As with most stereotypes, there is a foundation of truth, and you only have to look at the list of people who have admitted as much; Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Paul Merton, Ruby Wax and Robin Williams to name a handful. The later being the most poignant example, as Williams couldn’t bear living out the ‘sad clown’ role anymore, and it’s heartbreaking how his story ended.
Comedians aren’t the only examples of ‘sad clowns’, and in fact I believe its an accurate way of describing many sufferers of depression and anxitey, and certainly one that I can relate to within my own life. It’s the illusion of putting on a front to the outside world that you are happy, content and that everything is ok. But the big smiles and glowing eyes are painted on, in order to mask the truth of whats happening beneath the surface. The motivations for hiding mental health issues with this false outward appearance are varied; embarrassment, frustration, stubbornness, fear of losing a job or friends, or simply a desperation for people to view you as the positive happy person that you desperately want to be. This article from the Daily Mail refers to this as ‘smiling depression’, and I feel this is a pertinent description. In the article Dr Cosmo Hallstrom comments that “Sometimes they tell you, ‘No, I’m not depressed’ — and they smile. But it’s a sad smile. To the outside world, they give no hint of their problem — often holding down a full-time job, running a family home and enjoying an active social life. But underneath they are suffering secret panic attacks, insomnia, crushing low self-esteem and even suicidal thoughts.”
People deal with depression in an assortment of ways, and its manifestations are numerous and complicated. For some people this ability to project a positive veneer and hide ones true feelings is unattainable, and no amount of practice can allow them to bottle up all of their emotions or feelings inside. However there is a significant number of people (myself included) who become so expert at generating this mask, that it becomes second nature, and in fact becomes far easier than presenting an accurate picture of whats really going on inside. For me the clearest indication of being proficient in this technique, is the number of people that are surprised when I’ve told them off my illness, or remark “I would have never thought that of you”. Is this hoodwinking of peoples perceptions a good things or a bad thing? I’m not sure.
Here is an excellent article about ‘hidden depression’ which I find particularly difficult to read due to how applicable and accurate it is. There are so many relevant quotes I could list where the author hits the nail on the head, but for me the most appropriate and perceptive one is:
“Some people can totally fake it. They can smile and laugh; they can act like everyone else, even while they are in excruciating emotional pain…. People who are depressed but act like they are fine may not confide in anyone. Usually they find a way to spend time alone crying or letting down the facade and then go back to acting when they have to be with people. I’ve had clients who lived with their families and only found time to cry after everyone went to sleep, and only in the bathroom. The rest of the time they were acting like someone who wasn’t in pain. On top of the pain they already feel, acting happy is emotionally exhausting, and having this secret is isolating. So, faking it can even increase the depression.”
I also appreciate the description of the ‘cement jacket’ when referring to depressions ability to pull people down. It epitomises the act of being dragged down, kicking and screaming, desperately trying to keep your head above the surface, but finding that the weight pulling you down is too strong. It also presents a solid argument about how exhausting ‘acting happy’ can be. From the outside you’d think that it would be a way of lessening the effects of low mood and depression, whereas in fact the physical and emotional exertion required drains what little energy is in the tank, consequently expediting the inner torment and sinking feeling.
I guess the main conclusion from this blog is that you can never accurately judge how people are feeling from their outward appearance. There may be people out there that you are convinced are the happiest people to walk the earth, but in fact that may just be exceptional actors, able to put on a show for the public, only to reveal their true selves once they are alone. So what can be done to help solve this smoke and mirrors approach to depression? The answer is to talk about it. If people can be encouraged to open up about their feelings, without fear of criticism, judgement or even ridicule, then it will no longer be necessary to wear the mask. They can be themselves with the knowledge that people will understand what they are going through, and be there to help and provide support. Admitting your true self is the best thing that you will ever do. It can’t solve everything, and it wont cure the illness, but you will no longer need to hide behind the facade of a painted on smile, and suffer the emotional toll that this takes.