Smiling Depression: When 'Happiness' Hides a Parent's Hurt

Millions of Americans live with depression but some hide behind a happy facade. Here, one parent shares her experience with smiling depression.

Smiling mother with her kids,

Erin Brant / Stocksy

I’d like to tell you that today is a good day, a fine day, an OK day, but I’d be lying if I said I was happy. It’s the dead of winter. The air is crisp, cool. I’m shivering inside my own house. The days are short. Light is scarce, but everything feels so long. And that is because I’m in the midst of another depressive episode. I can feel it smothering me. Covering me. 

I’m in an ocean treading water. 

I’m drowning despite knowing how to swim.

Ironically, if you saw me, you wouldn’t know it. Last month, I attended a Gala, complete with red lipstick and a bold cat eye. Last week, I attended a party. I drank sugar cookie martinis with a smile on my face. There were hugs and kisses. There was warmth and love. And yesterday, I sang karaoke. I belted out ballads until my stomach hurt and my voice was sore. But inside, I was screaming. I was crying. I was dying. Inside, life had become more than I could bear. 

Smiling depression is a term used to describe someone with major depressive disorder who masks their symptoms, GoodTherapy, an online mental health directory and resource, explains. “It is often referred to with the phrase ‘hiding behind a smile’” because individuals with smiling depression do just that: They hide behind a happy facade. They may also try to convince others that they are OK. Sometimes referred to as “high functioning” depression, those living with smiling depression are also quite productive. Many celebrities fall into this category, for example, as do parents, employees, students, and creatives

“Individuals struggling with smiling depression… will find themselves dealing with the classic signs of major depressive disorder,” GoodTherapy adds. This includes feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anger, or irritability. However, those with high-functioning depression or smiling depression seem “normal” from the outside, coming across as cheerful and/or positive. “They tend to feel the need to hide their depressive symptoms.”

Of course, that is the case with me—I do my best to hide my illness, be it consciously or unconsciously. I’m a wife and mother. An employee, sister, and friend. I grew up with a mentally unwell parent, and I don’t want my children to live in the shadow of my sadness. I don’t want them to feel responsible for me and my mood. So I laugh, often and loudly. I smile brightly, albeit with crooked teeth, and I push through the pain all the time. I take my children to the movies and birthday parties and theme parks when I want to give up. When I want to give in.

Kimberly Zapata

I go to therapy to confront my demons. To keep the voices and negativity at bay. I also take medication to manage my symptoms. To be a better person, parent, and wife. But my smile doesn’t mean I am well. 

— Kimberly Zapata

But the truth? Every morning after dropping my daughter at school I crawl (back) into bed. I lay in the dark for 90 minutes until my day starts. Sometimes I sleep. Other times I stare at the ceiling, cold and alone. I take frequent breaks at work. At least once a day I lean to my left side and fold in half with tears in my eyes, battling dark thoughts. I’m at war with my mind. My temper is short. I am angry, rage-filled, and volatile. And I vacillate between being consumed by my feelings and being void of them. Yes, one of the more painful symptoms of depression is being numb.

I am a husk of a human. 

A ghost in a shell.

And that may be the hardest part about smiling depression, or my depression—at least as a parent. As a caregiver. As a mom. Because while my children bring me joy, when I am sick, I cannot see it. While my children bring me warmth, giving me the wettest kisses and the warmest hugs, when I am sick, I cannot feel it. And while I laugh at their jokes, particularly my son’s potty humor and my daughter’s blunt but oh-so-hilarious antics, when I am sick, my laugh is empty. I am empty.

Ironically, I am a proponent of mental wellness. I encourage my children to talk about their feelings, and my family members and friends. I frequently ask those I love how they are doing—and if they are well. I am empathetic, possibly to a fault, and I go to therapy to confront my demons. To keep the voices and negativity at bay. I also take medication to manage my symptoms. To be a better person, parent, and wife. But my smile doesn’t mean I am well. 

"People with smiling depression are often partnered or married, employed and are quite accomplished and educated," an article from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains. "Their public, professional and social lives are not struggling. Their façade is put together and accomplished. But behind the mask and behind closed doors, their minds are filled with thoughts of worthlessness, inadequacy, and despair."

"There’s a troubling connection between smiling depression and suicide," the article continues. "In contrast with a patient who has little energy to even get out of bed, chronically depressed patients who report a surge of energy might be more likely to initiate a suicide attempt."

So what can you do if you are living with smiling depression? What should you do? First, you should keep going. Hour by hour. Day by day. Second, if you aren't already seeking help, do so. Talk to your friends and loved ones. Try to stop saying "I'm fine" and, instead, open up. Keep up with basic activities if you can. Show up for your therapy for appointments, for example. Take your medication, as and if prescribed. And remember: You are not bad or broken. You are not weak or flawed. You are sick and need treatment. Care for yourself as you would an ill family member or friend because the darkness doesn’t last forever. Because the sadness shifts and eventually lifts, and because there is always hope—even when it doesn’t feel that way. Even if it’s only a flicker. A spark. A thought of light.

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