The Weight of the Mask

Two years ago I had a coming-out of sorts.

Colourful wrestling masks for sale at a market
Photo by Larry Costales on Unsplash

I came out to my employer and colleagues as clinically depressed.

I got an interesting collection of responses. A mix of shock, discomfort and understanding.

“Really? But you are so cheerful!”

“Whoa, I had no idea”

“Oh. Are you ok?”

My boss simply gave a very pragmatically-Dutch:

“Ok, just keep us informed about what you need. I assume you are already getting treatment?”

Later on, at after-work-drinks, I started to get some questions. All from a place of curiosity, not judgement, so I was happy to engage (we are curious engineers after all).

“Does this mean you are sad all the time?”

“I just don’t believe it. You are so funny, always smiling and cracking jokes. How can you be depressed?”

“Depression? I don’t understand it, why can’t you just be happy?”

“Everybody feels depressed sometimes. Won’t this feeling pass?”

I did my best to answer, but really I was just making it up as I went along.

“No, I am not sad all the time.”

“I do have a sense of humour and love to laugh. Sometimes it’s all I’ve got to stop myself from crying”

“I can’t just be happy. It doesn’t really work like that. The chemical processes in my brain don’t work the way that they are supposed to. I do feel happiness and joy, but sometimes I just can’t. And the thought of putting the effort in to pull myself out of the depression hole is just so overwhelming that all I can do is sleep.”

“Absolutely, everyone feels depressed sometimes. I have battled these feelings for 12 years now, so no, I don’t think they will pass. I go through periods that are easier, and some that are harder. Finally now though, I have stopped living in denial and have started getting proper treatment”

Never one to do things by halves, I made this announcement around the same time that I decided to switch from marketing to software engineering. In my mind, the two were linked. Both marked the beginning of me living as myself: The awkward nerd that likes to make things but sometimes just can’t.

Two years on, I am an openly-depressed software engineer. I love the work and I love my team. Being honest about my depression has given me the confidence to pursue something I love and the courage to ask for support when I need it. It also forced me to be honest with myself. I am still depressed, but now I focus on gaining the skills, self-empathy and support I need in order to thrive, rather than continuing to merely survive.

Out of the 25% of European residents who experience depressive symptoms each year, I count myself as one of the lucky ones. Not only was I able to seek affordable treatment, but I didn’t have to hide who I am at home or work. Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of depression, there is still a stigma attached to it that means that many people do not seek treatment. The reason I am writing this article is not only to encourage people to find the support they need, but for openness about mental health in the workplace to be normalised.

Because, you know what? It actually takes a lot of effort to pretend that everything is fine when it’s not. It’s called masking and it’s exhausting. As humans, we all mask to varying degrees. Sometimes we do it on purpose (smile when dealing with customers), but usually we do it unconsciously. Like many people with mental health issues, I became a masking master.

It wasn’t until I opened up about how I was feeling, that someone close to me told me that I wasn’t lazy, I was masking. I had somehow become an expert at something I didn’t even know I was doing. And I was paying the price. My fatigue led me to believe that I was lazy, which led me to feeling useless, which in turn amplified my depression and the effort it took to mask it.

Not only did masking explain ever-worsening fatigue, later on it explained the surprised “But you’re so cheerful!” reactions from my colleagues.

It was a welcome revelation. Not one I would have easily come to on my own.

And, shock, horror! After I saw the pattern and knew it was safe to “not be ok” sometimes, I was able to channel the energy I spent on masking into more productive and healthy things. Like becoming a better programmer.

There is no-one-size-fits-all approach to managing depression. But I hope by sharing my story, it makes it easier for some of you to face your own.

You are not alone!

This is the first article of a series on mental health. Expect the next one in about two weeks. It might be longer or shorter depending on how I feel.

Thinker. Speaker. Software Engineer. Feminist. Human.

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