Putting on a Brave Face: My Interpretation of 'Stiff Upper Lip' Part 1

Depression is a sneaky little tinker. It wants to hide. It wants to hide from the person it affects. But if he or she discovers it, it wants to hide from the rest of the world. It's not in its best interests to be out in the open because then support will be given, trips to the doctors will ensue and the depression will be fighting for its own survival.

And so it tries to remain hidden.

People have said to me that they can't ever imagine me being depressed, I'm just so laid back and happy. You can probably guess the ironic punchline here: yep, I was depressed when they said it. As you can see, I'm pretty good at putting on a brave face.

'Stiff Upper Lip' is the fourth painting in The Seven Gates series. The previous three paintings have all shown the depression hiding from the person affected. 'Descent From Mobius Wood' showed one aspect of the illness disguising itself as a tree, albeit a slightly evil twisted looking tree.

In 'Welcome', another aspect that encouraged isolation was represented by a masked woman, hiding her true face.

The depression was becoming more brazen in 'The Insidious Whisper' as its bodily appearance was only shrouded in mist to hide it. The majority of the face was still obscured by a concrete headpiece. The small figure only needs to turn slightly to see it but he is so beaten down his head remains downcast.

'Stiff Upper Lip' switches to dealing with how I actively helped the depression by keeping its existence a secret.

As I've mentioned previously, it was a long time before I even knew that I had depression. It probably started when I was 16 or 17 and I only knew about it when I reached 27 approximately, although I can't remember the exact date. That's 10 years of ignorance on my part. But even when I knew what was causing my low moods, I said nothing. Like I said, depression likes to remain hidden.

My wife, Jo, was completely oblivious to how I was feeling. She was under the impression that everything was generally great. The thing you have to understand about my wife is that she is very attuned to emotions. She can spot subtle changes in how people are feeling. If she was a Star Trek character, she'd be Deanna Troi. (For the unenlightened, Troi has the psionic ability to sense emotions and is the Enterprise's counsellor.) Added to this uncanny emotion spotting ability, she lived with me on a daily basis. Yet she still was unaware that I was depressed. That's not her fault, not in the slightest, it just goes to show how well I hid it.

When I finally admitted that I thought I was depressed and talked about how I'd been feeling, she was devastated. You can guess the emotions that hit her: shock, guilt, fear and sadness amongst others. I obviously felt guilt too for keeping it a secret, although at the time I didn't realise the strength of influence the depression exerted on me. We were both victims of a cruel illness. Since that time I've always told her when I'm feeling depressed. This has a down side. No pun intended.

I had to appear fit and mentally well to the rest of the world. Putting on a brave face gave me a break from feeling down, or so the depression told me. This reasoning has led to very few people actually knowing about the extent of my depression. The strategy works; it is a break. Although long-term it doesn't solve anything. Its sole use was to get me through the day. This stiff upper lip attitude led to many difficult times for Jo.

Imagine the situation: your partner is thoroughly depressed and has been for six months. At home they are constantly down, hopeless and unresponsive. They are in effect lost to you. Then you go out. The brave face appears and your partner returns in full force for other people, laughing and joking and generally being themselves. Afterwards, the depression regains control.

I still can't appreciate how hard that must have been for Jo. She's told me in recent times that she felt that she was the cause of the depression because I seemed okay with other people. In a perverse way, she was privileged to see the illness in full flow (I really know how to treat the ladies). Her awareness of the depression allowed me to show the full extent of the illness. It was a call for help on my behalf. In effect, she turned out to be the weak point in the depression's armour.

Without Jo's support I wouldn't have accessed the interventions that helped me and I wouldn't have made the drastic changes to my life that have diminished the depression's impact, i.e. leaving teaching and taking up art full-time. As I've mentioned before, I haven't been cured and I'm sure that circumstances could occur that would send me spiralling back down but I've been given a fighting chance of keeping the illness in check.

I still struggle to talk about my mental health; it's hard to rid myself of roughly thirty years of hiding it. And yet by writing these posts, I'm able to remove the brave face to a certain extent and start to deal with and get support for these issues. If you too suffer with depression and you've kept it hidden as I did, then consider how it would be to talk about it with at least one person. You could share it with your partner, a friend, your doctor or a counsellor. How would it affect you if you lost the stiff upper lip?

For Part 2, Click Here.

In the next post, we'll see how all of this fits in with my painting 'Stiff Upper Lip'. See you then!

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