Taking Off the Mental Illness Mask (Guest Post)

The emerging blogger series on Mental Health @ Home -background image of cherry blossoms

In this emerging blogger post, Sarah from Between Two Poles writes about taking off the mask in the context of mental illness.

outstretched arms holding a black face mask
Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

I saw the live-action Aladdin last week with two boys I babysit. One of the boys is ten years old and the other one is seven. We had the following conversation on the way home:

D (10): Who do you think was the funnier Genie? The cartoon or this one?

Me: Well, Robin Williams played Genie in the cartoon movie, and he is one of the funniest people to ever live.

A (7): Why doesn’t he go on America’s Got Talent?

Me: He isn’t alive anymore…

A: He isn’t? What happened?

Me: He had an accident.

A: Like a car accident?

Me: No, something else.

They didn’t ask any more questions about Robin Williams after that. I did not intend for the conversation to go the way it did, and I felt badly for getting myself into that situation. However, I think I handled it fairly well.

It is believed Robin Williams was bipolar and struggled with depression, especially towards the end of his life. He committed suicide shortly after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After an autopsy it was determined he also had dementia.

I remember finding out about his suicide and being shocked. Death is jarring, and somehow a celebrity dying is even more so, particularly when it’s suicide.

Robin Williams was beyond hilarious, and I experienced some cognitive dissonance that someone so comical could struggle with depression.

But should his battle with depression surprise me?

No, it really shouldn’t.

Like many people who have a mental illness, I imagine Robin Williams used humor as a coping mechanism.

I’m not nearly as funny as Robin Williams, but I use humor to deflect and distract from my pain and melancholy.

Oftentimes, I am funniest at my lowest moments. People cannot know I’m hurting or depressed, and the only way to keep them from noticing is to be funny.

All. The. Time.

It’s exhausting, but it’s my way of coping.

When other people are around, I have to be on. I have to put on a brave face and pretend everything is fine.

They cannot know I struggle.

They cannot discover my dark secret.

They cannot learn of my suicidal thoughts.

Humor is my method of preventing people from seeing the nefarious side of my personality. Nobody will suspect I want to die if I’m always entertaining and making people laugh.

I don’t just do it for other people, though. I do it for myself, too. I use humor as a defense against oncoming despair. Hearing people laugh because of something I said or did gives me a rush of dopamine that provides temporary relief from the anguish of depression.

I am not always depressed, but dark moods are habitually right beneath the surface. It takes little to no provocation for my moods to tailspin. Laughter—my own and others—keeps those negative emotions at bay; at least for a little while.

My therapist has noticed my tendency to use humor to avoid hurt. We will be talking about something serious, and I will pop off with a joke or funny story. I frequently make her laugh, but she isn’t fooled. She knows my strategy.

Humor helps salve the wounds of shame that threaten to overwhelm me. This strategy is not unique to me. A lot of people use humor as a defense or diversion when depression comes knocking.

But laughter doesn’t make the pain go away. Not permanently. It is a surface-level solution, which means it solves nothing.

I don’t want people to worry about me. If people always knew what I was thinking, I’d be institutionalized. I like to think my comedy assures people I am happy and safe.

As much as I hate to admit it, this strain of humor creates chasms between people. If I’m always funny and never vulnerable, nobody will ever know me on a deeper level. My humor keeps people at a safe distance; if I make them laugh, they cannot see my scars or shame.

Sometimes it’s necessary to put on a brave face, but other times, the braver action is taking off the mask and showing the world your true self.

You can find Sarah on her blog Between Two Poles.

5 thoughts on “Taking Off the Mental Illness Mask (Guest Post)”

  1. Sarah has a lot of great things to say, such as using humor to hide behind so no one knows what you’re really thinking. I also liked the way she used a real-life situation (the conversation) as an intro to her post. I’ll definitely check out her blog!

  2. When I think of Robin Williams, I recall the movie “What Dreams May Come”. It was the movie where he struggled to find/save his wife after she committed suicide… In that role, his character would do anything to be with his wife and save her. The sadness, is how we could live many life times and never find another person who would be willing to do the same for you. Something about that movie…

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