Those of us who battle one or more mental illnesses have many coping mechanisms. Some are positive and beneficial. CBT, counselling, medication, meditation, and physical exercise are just a few examples. There are other coping mechanisms, ones that are not as healthy. Substance addiction (alcohol, smoking, or street drugs for example), isolation, denial, or overcompensating to hide the problem.
I personally have noticed steady improvements when I regularly implement some of the positive skills I’ve listed above. But I also know that I tend to use some of the negative ones too. Smoking is one that I just can’t seem to kick, for example. It’s also very easy for me to “hermit” – hardly leaving the house except to go to work, and attempting to maintain friendships via social media rather than meeting face to face.
On this episode of the SickNotWeak Landsblog, Michael Landsberg talks briefly about overcompensating as a misdirection and distraction when he’s struggling with depression. The goal, of course, is to take the focus off him, and shift it elsewhere. That episode made me stop and think, and i realized that I often use a similar tactic of overcompensation. I have touched on it previously in a post called The Mask, where I first wrote about this “identity” but I’m trying to come at it from a different angle. This isn’t so much about The Mask itself, but why it – and the persona attached to it – even exists.
I almost become a second person when I’m at work.
Even more when I’m struggling with thoughts or feelings of suicide.
Or drowning in the sense of being an encumbrance on everyone.
I instinctively overcompensate my depression with an outgoing personality.
The deeper the depression, the more this personality becomes “larger than life”.
It’s almost like a second personality, an alter ego, a superhero of sorts.
Clark Kent’s Superman
Bruce Wayne’s Batman
Tony Stark’s Iron Man.
It’s everything I wish I really was, and it’s based on something that doesn’t exist.
I haven’t been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but occasionally I have brief periods where I experience “manic” symptoms, similar to what has been described to me by people who deal with it. 12 to 14 hours, occasionally as long as 16 hours of feeling on top of the world. I have lots of energy, far more mental focus than usual (and exponentially more than when I’m in a depressive episode), and it’s all accompanied by an almost euphoric, blissful state of mind. I am on top of the world, and it will be impossible to stop me. Don’t bother to try, because I’ll run over, past, or through you to get what I want. Either that, or I’ll simply outwork, outsmart, outplay, and out shine you, and I’ll do it all without breaking a sweat, and with an effortless smile on my face!
At least, that’s how I feel for those occasional 12+hour bursts, before reality sets in and/or the “high” I was on vanishes as swiftly as it swept me up in it’s embrace.
You see, this is who I wish I was in real everyday life, and from my perspective, this is who or what my “alter ego” was instinctively modeled on. I don’t recall any of it being a conscious choice really, but compared to the shy, introverted, insecure individual I was through highschool and into my early 20’s, it’s not hard to understand why it’s become so easy to present a personality like that. People are attracted to positive, confident people, especially one who still manages to make people feel welcomed, noticed, and at ease. People are NOT attracted to shy, insecure, introverted people with less-than-great social skills. It’s no surprise, therefore, that certain social behaviours are rewarded with positive reinforcement, and other behaviours are shunned. If an outgoing personality is rewarded with positive responses, then that’s what will be presented. Most people wouldn’t grasp that it’s just a mask to obscure a face, makeup and a costume, a mere character in a perpetual masquerade, and actor in a neverending play.
So do I overcompensate? Unquestionably, yes. This “other person” I sometimes become at work or other places is simultaneously a defence, a desperate cry help, and valiant attempt to fool myself into thinking I’m ok.
It’s a shield: I’m happy, outgoing, joking, encouraging, smiling. I’m fine! How can I be depressed?
It’s a cry: If you know me, you know this isn’t really me. I’m feel like I’m drowning. I need you to notice. I need you to care. I need to know I’m not as alone as I feel
It’s a ploy: Maybe if I pretend to be as positive and outgoing as I wish I was, maybe I can fool myself into being as positive and outgoing as I pretend to be.
The deeper the depression, the more this persona is a deception. Sometimes I can’t muster the strength to summon up the alter ego, but if I can, the bigger the personality, the more fictional it is. But yet, the rush, the high, the “manic” days I enjoy on occasion – often coincide with a big personality too. And they’re so similar, they could be identical twins. But which one is presenting it’s face today? Even if I had the courage to tell you, would it be the manic-fueled face? Or is it the fictitious alter-ego that, today at least, has fooled me into thinking I’m someone I’m not? Am I actually feeling good and riding the “manic” high I desperately crave when it’s gone? Or is it the persona that, contrary to appearances, is as thin and frail as rice-paper?
The frightening thing is, I sometimes succeed. Occasionally I manage to trick myself into thinking I am this big personality. I manage to shove the darkness and chaos into a box, stuff it in the back corner of a closet, and forget it exists.
For a while.
When the darkness inevitably returns, I have to face (again) that I’m not who I was pretending to be. But now I have to face the heaviness of depression (or the scattered, racing thoughts of anxiety) without that ‘strength’ to bluff and bluster my way through. And I have to face those things, and life, and work, and this additional vague heaviness, and weight, and dread, because the world just won’t stop for me. And I have to fight to keep up, fight to survive, fight to hold things together long enough for the jolts and bumps of recovery smooth out a bit. I have to fight to find me again, apart from the mask and the superhero costume and the personality to match.
And yet I keep dragging them with me, because somehow I find a strange solace in their pretense.
If you know me, this really isn’t me
Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning, and that’s when I need you to notice
I need to know that I’m not as alone as I feel
I feel it more often than you know
Because sometimes, I’m not really me
Precisely when I’m desperately trying to fool the world and myself
I need you to look past the smile
And look for me
I promise you, I’m in here somewhere
But I just might need your help to find me.