The Mask of Mental Illness


Universally beloved dancer, actor, DJ, and executive producer Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss died by suicide at the age of 40. In the wake of his passing, millions of people have expressed the shock of seeing a human being so outwardly radiant succumbing to such internal sadness.

Those of us who live with chronic depression are never surprised when someone leaves prematurely. We know there is often zero correlation between a person’s outward appearance and their internal condition.

William Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage, and he was onto something.

I know because I’m a master thespian and I am but one in a large company of great actors surrounding you right now.

Every single day we put on the most brilliant performances and most people watching us have no idea that it’s all theatre: a carefully scripted tragic comedy staged in real-time in their midst.

There are plenty of us out there practicing our stagecraft where you live and work and study, but you’ll probably never realize it—that’s how good we are. We don’t do it for the recognition, in fact it’s because of what we so desperately want to hide that we’ve been forced to choose this vocation at all. Our gift is crafted out of necessity; a required skill honed in the crucible of awkward moments, buried sadness, and the perceived weight of expectation.

One of the things you learn when you live with a mental illness, is that everyone has a capacity for compassion, and many people usually reach theirs well before you stop hurting. At some point your pain eclipses their ability to carry it and you realize that your despair is a problem—for them.

This is where the performance begins.

Because you don’t particularly enjoy being you, you begin to imagine others may grow weary of being around you. You learn to read people’s body language, to look for signs of their ambivalence, to sense their perceived impatience, and you endeavor to play the part of someone else: someone who isn’t depressed.

And when you do, you don’t even need to be all that convincing to sell it. People are usually more than happy to suspend disbelief in order to keep you in character. They’ll play along because that storyline is far preferable to the one where someone around them is afflicted with sadness.

Often people will be willingly complicit in the charade; choosing not to look too hard, not to notice the cracks in your façade, not to catch you breaking character in the shadows. They will prefer the performance to the performer.

I’m asking you to not be one of those people.

I’m asking you to choose to really see us.

When you ask us how we are and we tell you we’re fine—ask again.

Don’t let us off the hook.

Refuse to be fooled by our best, most believable efforts to fool you.

The word hypocrite originally meant “actor”. It once denoted a person who played a part; someone who wore an actual mask upon a stage for the entertainment of others. It wasn’t as derogatory a word as it is today, alluding now to some intentional moral duplicity; the act of showing one person and being another.

And though our deception is not sinister but survivalist in nature, it is heavy and hurtful and it is never far from our minds. We feel the crushing weight of our duplicity every day. It sits there on top of the already present sadness, compounding it all, adding to the depression we already carry the guilt of trying to pretend we aren’t depressed.

And here’s the deal: we probably aren’t going to call “cut” and let you see the real us at this point. We’ve long ago assured ourselves of the consequences of that kind of authenticity and so you’re going to need to do it for us.

You’re going to have to be the one who sees through the mask, who steps into our space, who looks us in the eyes and who tells us we can stop pretending. You’ll have to be the one to assure us that life doesn’t have to be great and everything doesn’t have to be wonderful and we don’t need to be fine for us to be close to you or welcome in your presence.

But having said all this, know too, that all the kindness in the world may not be enough. ‘tWitch’ was surely surrounded by people who loved, respected, and fought for him every day, as are many of those who ultimately lose their battles to stay. he performance is simply too exhausting.

Because as tired as we are of our depression, we’re as tired of pretending we’re not depressed.

We’re ready to retire from acting for good.

Bring the house lights up and help us exit the stage.

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