Living with depression and anxiety often requires us to perform wellness and pretend health, to broadcast carefully curated skits for our families and friends and for those we interact with as professionals.
Performing wellness requires adjustments to behaviour and speech to mask the effects of illness. Do your hair a certain way, smile on demand, say ‘I’m fine’ and make it sound like truth. Or, keep silent. If you say nothing they won’t know and if you must speak, lie; after all, performance comes with a script. Lie about how well you’re doing or die a quiet death having said nothing. Either way, no one will ever suspect that the wellness is a performance.
We perform wellness because we have mouths to feed, bills to pay and admitting illness will only make those jobs harder. Or perhaps because we’re just really private people and don’t need the world knowing our weaknesses. Most of the time we perform wellness because the world demands it, because we can’t thrive as our authentic, flawed selves in a world that requires conformity and punishes imperfection.
Many of us fear annoying friends and family if we decline social events due to illness or even refer to illness at all. ‘Come on, it’s not that serious’ is the standard response. But it really is that serious. Anxiety is debilitating and it’s not fun trying to be social when your own inner voice is mocking you. Why do you think we sit or stand in one place all night and never venture to make conversation? Do you think I wanted to leave my home to come here and play wallflower? But here I am, because I’m living a lie.
Those of us living with anxiety don’t want to be seen as needy, high-maintenance, or boring. We fear losing loved ones if we don’t perform wellness and pretend health. So we wear the masks, and so we suffer.
These are real concerns. We know people who have lost opportunities, employment, even marriages and families because of mental health challenges and the often-damaging coping mechanisms we employ to aid our pretenses – isolation, promiscuity, alcoholism, ‘herbal sustenance’ (wink if you know), hard drugs – the list of things we might do to hide our distress is long.
We do what we must to maintain a semblance of wellness because that’s what we need to do to not be rejected. We learn very early on that it’s better to act than to be authentic because authenticity often means rejection, and rejection means loneliness. And so we continue to pretend health and perform wellness.
Eventually the cracks will show, usually leading to total system collapse. In my case it was years of cracks before I had a major panic attack at work and admitted myself into a facility.
When To Pretend and Perform
There were times in those first months of living openly with depression and anxiety that I made the decision to act better than I felt. Like when my children needed me to show up well, for example; when I needed to make money, or simply when I felt that faking it was the first step to making it. Everybody does not need to know everything about me so there are times I will withhold information about my state of mind, when I choose to don a wellness I don’t always feel. Agency makes the difference.
I take care to be discerning about my motivations because I know that external pressure tends to affect me negatively, especially over extended periods. Agency is defining myself both to myself and those around me. Any time I have to redefine myself to fit someone else’s idea of me, or to fit into societal structures, then I’m not exercising agency and my performance of wellness stops serving me; it becomes risky and potentially harmful. There’s a difference between carefully curating what information I make available to others to keep myself safe, and doing things because I fear rejection and abandonment. The latter is unlikely to produce positive outcomes.
What I have learnt about depression and anxiety is that these conditions can be debilitating and devastating, but it is possible to win. Winning – and yes, I consider myself as having won – has required being honest first with myself about what it is I am facing, and then being as authentic as it is safe to be with others. There is, no doubt, a time to fake it till you make it, but you cannot let anything outside of yourself dictate that time.
There’s a time and place to pretend wellness and perform health, just like there’s a time and place for stage makeup and costumes. What we must not do is get so lost in the roles we play that others cannot see us, or so committed to the act that we cannot find ourselves.