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Putting on a Brave Face: My Interpretation of ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ Part 2


In the last instalment (Click Here if you missed it) I wrote about how putting on a brave face is not necessarily the best thing to do when you have depression despite the illness telling you it definitely is. Now, I'll look at how this idea fed into the creative process behind my latest painting 'Stiff Upper Lip'.

When it came to planning this painting, the one overriding image I had in my head was of going back to work after a holiday and one of my colleagues asking me if I'd had a good holiday:

"Actually, no, I haven't. It's been a shocker. I've been severely depressed and spent the majority of the week moping around the house, not wanting to do anything and not gaining any pleasure from anything I did manage to do. I've struggled to get out of bed every morning and spent a fair amount of time lying on the floor feeling total despair. I've continually told myself how useless I am and that I'm a rather bad person. Added to all that, the thought of coming back to work has filled me with anxiety and dread. So no, I haven't had a good holiday."

Well, maybe I didn't say that. And because I didn't want anyone to find out about the depression for fear of them trying to help me, a more accurate version would be:

"Yeah, lovely thanks. Nice and relaxing. What about you?"

I had the feeling of being thrust into a reality where everyone was watching, looking for a sign that something was wrong with me so that they could meddle (as the depression would put it), offer me support, or worse still, listen to me talk about my problems. Yes, the depression was paranoid. It didn't want anything or anyone to stop it from growing. The irony of the above situation is that the person asking me about my holiday was being polite; they weren't really interested. They had their own problems to think about. It's even possible that they'd had a nightmare holiday too and were putting a brave face on it.

I'm not being so bleak that I'm saying that no-one cares, friends and family definitely care, I'm saying that most people we come across in our day-to-day lives don't.


In this painting, I represented the feeling of being lowered into a reality (for me, it was going back to work) and feeling an overwhelming pressure from the illness within and a sense that the outside world is bright and positive whereas I'm in a dark foreboding place. The surroundings are pressing in and crushing the bathysphere, bringing with it feelings of anxiety. The buildings loom over the bathysphere showing the idea of being watched from all directions; there is even a subtle reflection of another building in the shiny brass giving the impression of an unseen skyscraper to the front of the bathysphere. I wanted to represent claustrophobia in an open environment to add to the anxiety. The creatures looking out at the bathysphere are representations of how the depression saw other people (the meddlers) waiting and watching for a sign that something is wrong. The creatures in actuality are translucent, like ghosts because they're not really there. The real people are inside their own little boxes - the flats - dealing with their own issues.


The main character, Smiley, was designed to show the expression that depression forced me to wear: to put on a fake smile despite the pressure. The mental pain is so intense that the character's eyes are tight shut. To hide this, his eyes are covered by a locked metal band to keep the illness a secret. He is in a cramped position reminiscent of being held in a straitjacket. This is to restrain him from getting any help. (As an aside, it's an interesting exercise to search Google images for 'straitjacket'; it certainly shows a worrying view of mental health issues.)


I mentioned in a previous post that during the planning phase I worked with free association and the idea of a germinating seed taking over my central nervous system appeared. This isn't coming from any scientific understanding on my part but from a general feeling that depression takes over the mind and body in a slow and methodical way, growing until it takes total control. In a twist on the usual germination process, this seed can only grow and flourish if it stays in the dark and hidden. Hence the need for the stiff upper lip to ensure no-one suspects what lurks beneath the surface.

Something strange has just happened. During the writing of this post, I've realised that some of what I've written isn't true; I don't believe that most people don't care. It is a belief that's become ingrained in my psyche after numerous periods of depression. This style of negative thinking is something that has become far too easy for me. But rather than edit the above, I'm going to leave it and you can compare it with what I actually see as the truth:

I would say that most of my colleagues would have been sympathetic to me and tried to help; they were generally very kind people. I don't think that everyone would have been great at dealing with mental health issues, indeed they may have been terrified or have thought the oh-so-helpful "Get a grip!". On the other hand, there may have been that one person who really surprised me and gave me support, advice and someone to talk to. Remember that one in four people will suffer with depression at some point in their lives so it's statistically likely that two or three people at my work had experience of depression. I know that if someone, even a stranger, had confided in me that depression was an issue, I would have tried to help and I certainly would have cared. And I guess I'm not alone.

Maybe my illness was right to be paranoid. Maybe someone would have supported me if I'd dropped the brave face.

No. Let's change that.

My illness was right to be paranoid. Someone would have supported me if I'd dropped the brave face.

This little writing experience has shown me that even though I'm not currently depressed, it's a good idea to keep questioning my thoughts. The illness has left a legacy in me, a legacy that is striving to isolate me even now. It's also revealed that my painting has a slightly different interpretation than I initially thought. I suppose it's apt that depression has been a collaborator in the creation of this painting.

For my interpretation of the next painting in the series - 'Skin the Shine of the Rain' - Click Here.

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