There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past couple of days. It’s about perceptions. To be more specific, it’s about our perceptions of other people. You see, before I started talking to people about my mental health, I thought everyone else was absolutely fine. Because why wouldn’t I? Everyone always seemed so happy that what could possibly be going wrong underneath the surface? It’s something I’m completely guilty of, plastering on a massive smile and pretending like everything’s okay when really I’m holding back the urge to burst into tears or just wanting to curl up in a ball and hide from the world. But many of us who battle with mental health issues put on this exterior to hide how we’re really feeling, because we don’t want to be the only one who everything’s going wrong for. It works as a kind of coping mechanism. That’s not to say every smile is fake, don’t get me wrong, but I know that many of mine over the past few years have been.
As anyone who saw the walls of my 3rd year bedroom will be able to testify to, I have an obsession with photos. I think I’d rather give up pretty much every other social media outlet before Instagram in all honesty. It’s not just because I think cameras are really fun (again, major obsession). You can look at photos and remember happy times, capture moments that you don’t want to forget. But I’ve realised something else. They can hide things, show something that isn’t as real as it seems. They can trick you into thinking someone is absolutely fine when really they’re not. I’ve been looking more and more at photos from the past two years and questioning whether I can actually say I’m happy in them. I realised that actually, in quite a few of them, I’m not. That’s not to say I’m completely miserable in all of them, it’s more like it’s happy with an asterisk. It’s a hazy happy where you think you’re okay, but when you actually get out of the grasps of depression you realise that actually, you weren’t. You were happy*, but not as happy as you could have been. It’s the sort of happy where I put on a smile to try and make everything better, but inside my head the thoughts don’t match what you would think I was feeling. You’re surrounded by the people who should be making you happy, but your brain isn’t letting you be happy without the *.
We live in this lovely little social media age where we can pick and choose what people see about us. You can block someone on Facebook, make your Twitter account private, pick the perfect angle for that Instagram post that makes everything look all lovely and artsy. I’ve done all of those. What’s worse is that so many other people do it too, and we make assumption about them based on an incomplete data set. We jump to conclusions about them, about things like their friendships, romantic relationships, the ‘dream job’ they can’t stop banging on about. We think we know someone when really we don’t. We only know part of them, the part that they’re willing to let you see. And sometimes the assumptions you make can hurt. You might see your best friend off having a whale of a time with someone who they’ve only known a month (“Have I been replaced? Are they having more fun without me?”); you see your ex-partner or the person you wish was a bigger part of your life with someone else (“You were a fool to think they could actually like you because evidently there’s someone better out there”); you see someone who was horrible to you years ago going on about how wonderful everything is and that life couldn’t get any better (“Why them and not me?”). I make assumptions like this all the time. But I don’t have the whole picture, and I have to keep reminding myself of that or it drives me up the wall.
So because of all of this, I’ve decided to show you something. I want to show people, to those of you who might be depressed like I have been or who generally feel down about things and think that you’re on your own because you’re surrounded by people who have the outward appearance of being happy, that there’s more than meets the eye to the pictures we let appear on our social media pages. Because I don’t think you can really tell the difference between the pictures I’ve put below. I don’t think if you scrolled through the (painfully long) list of pictures of me on Facebook that you could tell where I’m really happy or where I’m happy*. I look just as happy in each of them, but I’m not. In over half, I’m happy*. Not happy. Happy*.
[A little disclaimer….in case you haven’t guessed by now, there’s going to be quite a few pictures of me (well, there’s 5). So if you’d rather not spend time looking at my face, maybe stop reading now or skip to the end paragraph.]
1. Just-about-to-get-really-depressed happy
This is about a month before everything started to get a bit too much and when I started to get completely and utterly overwhelmed. We’re mid-way through the post-offer College Open Days when we were all functioning on very little sleep, it’s freezing cold, and we’re having to try and stay super enthusiastic every time a train pulls into the station despite there regularly not being any would-be John’s students on the train (the one downside of being the second smallest college).
But I can honestly say that I’m happy.
2. Post-assault-falling-into-depression-and-PTSD happy
It’s our Summer Ball. I’m smiling. I’m miserable. It’s a month after I was attacked, and two weeks since I’ve been back at university, maybe not even that. I don’t want to be there, and there’s a reason why there aren’t many pictures of me around this time. There are pictures from that evening where I look far happier (but if you’ve seen them you can probably guess why I haven’t included them in this blog post), but again, those picture aren’t all that they seem. You wouldn’t guess on the surface that I’m beginning to get really depressed and am starting to develop PTSD, would you?
3. We-finished-our-degree-and-have-no-more-exams happy
Don’t I look excited! I’m not. Because I’ve just completely flunked an exam where I wrote less than an A4 page for one of the 50% essays on the paper. Yep, it went that badly. But of course it went that badly, I’ve been too depressed for two terms to get out of bed regularly on a Tuesday morning to get to the lectures that exam was based on. But at the time I didn’t think I was depressed. I think I’m just an idiot who’s too lazy to get out of bed in the morning. Exhausted doesn’t cover how I’ve felt in the past 8 months of my final year, and the past two weeks have been hell, to put it mildly. I’m pretty sure that, best case scenario, I’ll have scraped a 2:2, meaning I won’t get to do the Masters course I was accepted onto months ago, and I’ll just be a massive failure. But hey, I can still put on a massive smile and pretend it’s okay can’t I?
I”m glad to be with my friends (they’re the only thing that kept me going through it all really), but again, I’m happy*.
4. How-did-I-even-graduate happy
This one…this one’s tricky. The laughing happy grin on my face even tricks me into thinking I’m happy. I have no idea how I’m feeling in this one. I can’t 100% say I’m happy or happy*. It’s kind of in-between the two. Because I’m depressed. It’s not at it’s worst, but it’s there. I didn’t really think I deserved to graduate, but being surrounded by so many friends and family is helping me to fight off the depression for now.
I’m not exactly happy*, but I’m also not happy.
5. Genuinely happy
This was the weekend I started to get better. I’ve just had a truly terrible week where I’ve only managed to sit one exam out of four and where I’ve sat in many a bedroom or office crying my eyes out. But I’m getting better. I’m genuinely, 100% over the moon to be with three of my oldest, most awesome friends, and I’ve noticed how much happier I am to be around them compared to the foggy feelings I’ve had in the past couple of years when I’ve gone home. Not just that, but I’m really happy to be at home with my parents, even if it is only for a really short amount of time.
No * necessary.
Perceptions are weird aren’t they. We can present this image of being fine when we’re not. It’s not just pictures either. It can be the things you talk about, and the things you post on social media. It can be the things you blog about – there are some things I’ll never blog about because I don’t want to and because I don’t need to, and there are pictures which I probably should have used to show how outward appearances can be deceiving but for various reasons I can’t. There are things that have happened in the past that I’m over and that I don’t need to dwell on anymore. Things that it wouldn’t really be fair for me to write about without letting other people give their side of things. Things that I’m embarrassed about. I’m filtering things out, I’m not being 100% open about everything. I’m controlling what people see and am presenting this image of, well I don’t really know what. Maybe you’re perceiving someone who’s in recovery and wants to share their experiences of mental health to possibly help someone else out there, to hopefully make them realise that they’re not alone. Or maybe you think I’m self-obsorbed and just want attention, that you think anyone with a blog is all me-me-me. I’m hoping you don’t think it’s the latter, because that’s really not why I’m doing this.
Just because everyone else around you might seem to have it all completely together doesn’t necessarily mean that they do. We’d probably be quite surprised at what’s really happening in people’s lives if we were all completely emphatically honest. But that’s a difficult thing for many people, and even though I seem to be preaching a bit about “let’s be open about everything”, I’m guilty of not doing this and probably always will be about some things.
Appearances can be deceiving. Because let’s be honest, how many of you thought I was completely fine before I began sharing this blog with you?
P.S. Massive shout out to my lovely friends for letting me use their beautiful ‘lil faces on here and for just generally being awesome and supportive when I asked if I could use pictures of them.