I have been struggling a lot this past year, mostly fighting bureaucracy and red tape. Unfortunately, the more heavily the battle weighs down on me, the more it bleeds into and invades every aspect of my life, particularly my writing. The more anxious I feel about the possibility of losing my battle, the more I find myself writing about how harshly anxiety affects my life. The more depressed I feel about the struggles I am having getting my disability case fixed and open, the more I write about the negative impact of depression. That is because I write what I feel and unfortunately, when someone has struggled with mental illness their entire life as I have, my words often emulate the negativity and hopelessness felt inside.
But please know that DOES NOT mean I never experience any happiness or that I am not allowed to be happy because I have a mental illness. Having depression doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from ever experiencing happiness. Finding a reason to smile or to laugh when you can DOES NOT take away or in any way minimize your struggles or your diagnosis.
I honestly don’t know why so many people expect mental illness to be an absolute, all or nothing diagnosis.
Someone can have arthritis so horrible that they often stay home because it hurts too badly to move, yet still have days between flare ups where they might go for a walk around the block in the sunshine or plant a few flowers in their garden. People applaud them for their strength for being able to still do things that they enjoy.
Someone can be fighting cancer and lie in bed for weeks, too exhausted to do anything in between their chemo treatments. When they manage to pull themselves up to sit, talk and laugh with a friend while catching up over a cup of coffee, people cheer them on. People applaud them for being able to set aside their pain and their struggles for even a few moments to enjoy the world again.
For any other visibly debilitating illness or health struggle, people receive overwhelming support and accolades for managing to embrace even a momentary slice of happiness in the midst of their battle. They’re commended for their great strength just for still being able to smile.
Yet, for anyone struggling with mental illness, anything even remotely resembling even momentary happiness is met with accusations. If someone smiles, laughs or talks about having a pleasant time or a good day, people swarm in to attack, assuming we must have been exaggerating or outright faking our illness because in that specific moment we “look just fine”.
They post rude comments on pictures we share where we’re smiling that we “don’t look very depressed to them”. When we talk about enjoying a few hours out with family or friends, they throw out snide remarks about how they thought we “had too much anxiety to do anything” or that our “depression made it too hard to function” yet they saw us out and about, having fun.
Their barrage of comments often makes us feel even more trapped and isolated by our illness. We are left feeling like we have to hide or make excuses for even momentary happiness, as if it is a forbidden luxury not extended to the mentally ill. We worry about even having a more functional than normal day, too, because others assume if we can manage something one day, we can do it every day. We debate with ourselves whether to even mention those sweet few happy moments to family and friends because we want to avoid those “I thought you were past that whole depression thing” conversations that inevitably emerge later on when we mention our illness has flared up again.
We’re supposed to “get help” and “get better”, to “get over everything” and “just be normal again”, but we’re not allowed to experience anything in between that horrible low and that “back to normal” state we’re pushed toward and expected to achieve. It is even worse if it is a long-term or life-long struggle. Many of those on the outside looking in can’t understand the ups and downs, highs and lows, the forward progress and backslides we go through, assuming we should be on a straight track from sick back to healthy again. They claim we seemed “just fine, even smiling” when they bumped into us at the grocery store last month so they figured we were “over that whole depression thing” as if it is some fad we were doing for fun, something they believed we would be over by now.
People can be in physical pain or be struggling with health conditions that make it harder to function and it’s okay. Even not being able to work is considered acceptable because others can see the pain. Those momentary bits of happiness are seen as a wonderful treasure for someone who needs and deserves it after the battle they’ve been fighting.
Just because you can’t see my mental illness does not mean I am not struggling with it. It does not mean that I am not fighting just as hard to function and to be as healthy as possible just like others with illnesses you can see. And I refuse to relinquish the little pieces of happiness that I experience just because others assume that, in order for my depression to be genuine, I must be miserable and suffering every hour of every day without break or end.
The truth is that, no matter how bad I am struggling on any given day, no matter how hopeless my world feels, I try to seek out at least one reason to smile every day. I have been told that I am the sweetest, most upbeat depressed person many people have ever met because I fight very hard to be optimistic and not give up hope. I refuse to drown in my mental illness. I have waged war on it and every single day I strike, reminding myself that there is still good in the world, beauty all around me, that there are still reasons to wake up in the morning and things to be grateful for in my life.
I strive to create good moments and memories whenever I can, to find reasons smile and laugh. We have family movie and game nights. I snuggle up with my partner and watch movies together or laugh at silly animal videos online. Though I struggle most days to socialize outside my house because my mental illness causes me to naturally isolate myself, I manage to joke here and there with friends online and share funny stories and memes. I even occasionally go out, whether to enjoy some time out while the weather is nice or to spend a little time with family and friends.
None of that negates my diagnosis. None of that minimizes my struggles.
It is no different than what someone with one of hundreds of different visible illness does to try and bring some joy into their lives to distract themselves from the pain.
It does not change the fact that the majority of the time I struggle to even pull myself out of bed or to eat. It doesn’t change the fact that I spend most of my life struggling to even function, overwhelmed and crying. It doesn’t change the fact that my illness is still always there, right under the surface, beneath that smile, silently eating away at me, trying to drag me back down.
I won’t apologize for my little bits of happiness and I won’t stop seeking them out. I need them for morale and for my own self-care and sanity. I need to seek out happiness in this world wherever I can find it so I have a reason to keep going and not give up even when my mental illness makes the world feels hopeless.
Being able to sometimes smile and laugh or enjoy part of your day when you’re struggling with mental illness shouldn’t be treated as a cardinal sin. It should be applauded as a sign of strength and self-care. Having a mental illness should not mean that you are never allowed to be happy again. It is not an absolute, all or nothing, you either have depression or happiness, choice.
If we manage to find a reason to smile or laugh for even a brief period in our day, please cheer us on for our ability to do so. Don’t rain on our parade just because you cannot see our pain or understand our illness. Any smile, any momentary happiness is a victory against an illness that is intent on dragging us downward into misery and despair. Don’t try to take that victory away from us.
To those who managed to smile or laugh today, good for you! Keep fighting the good fight and don’t ever let anyone else make you feel like you’ve done anything wrong by being happy because you haven’t. Embrace your happiness. Cherish it. You deserve it!