The Danger of a Happy Face
by Lynda MacFarland
There's an old show tune, "Put On A Happy Face", that I always loved. As someone who went through life with the belief that attitude is everything, this song always resonated with me. What I didn't know was that, with depression, you can't just "cheer up". Sometimes, just forcing a smile requires every ounce of energy and all of the intense focus you can muster, which isn't much if you are clinically depressed.
My ignorance, I'm ashamed to admit, allowed me to judge others' depression. They were not as strong, resilient, resourceful, or as healthy as me!
However, as I became mired in my own depression several years ago, I didn't want to smile. Even if I could muster one for the sake of my husband and children, it wasn't genuine. I didn't find anything amusing, interesting, or engaging.
During this time, while my husband and children were at work, I would crawl onto the couch and watch television - all day. For some people, that's OK. But for me it was abnormal. I must feel productive to be happy. This woman who sat immobile for almost 8 hours every day was not a person I recognized. And my family would not, if they'd been home. But they weren't, so I could fool everyone, even myself. I told myself that this "laziness" was my reward for years of taking care of my family and volunteering in the community.
I don't know how long I could have continued this way, as eventually my family would notice the lack of effort going into their evening meals and the food going bad in the fridge. I decided that I hated grocery shopping now, too. What I really hated was going out of the house and seeing people, interacting with them, being expected to talk, or God forbid, smile.
I did continue attending all official military events with my husband, however. It all came to a head one night after a hail and farewell event. When we got home, my husband told me that I "looked miserable" all evening. I panicked. My "secret" was out. I was miserable. And his statement, after more than 20 years of marriage, was not just an observation, but a concern. Like the proverbial dam breaking, I spilled everything I'd been feeling for weeks. When I finished, my husband told me that I had "alarmed" him and that word, "alarmed", stuck with me. Together we decided that I would see a doctor and get some help.
My initial medical appointment, which ended with me crying in the exam room, resulted in a prescription for anti-depressants. That was it. There was no follow up scheduled, and no referral to the health professionals whose offices were just upstairs. This is the type of doctor I fear other military family members might see. I don't want to just be given a pill to take; I want someone to listen and truly help a struggling spouse or child.
I would venture to say that, for some of us, medication isn't even necessary. Just someone to talk to who will give us some coping skills to help us deal with the challenges of military life may be all we need. (After that first, bad experience, I found a behavioral health professional who was very competent and compassionate in that same military hospital, by the way.)
For me, low-dose anti-depressants did help, and for a time I went in to the doctor every couple of months so he could track how I was doing. In the end, even when I was off the medication, I still knew, and believe to this day, if I ever feel myself headed toward that valley, I can see someone to talk it out.
I actually did do that one time after returning to the States after my husband's last deployment to a war zone. We lost a good friend after his deployment, and I was so upset by it and couldn't stop grieving. I found a social worker to talk to through a local charity and saw her once a week for about 8 months.
I didn't need anti-depressants at that point. I just needed to talk to someone who had the time to listen, and the professional training to assist me in figuring out how to move forward. The losses in our lives, in our unit, had been many. And it had changed both my husband and myself. I believe it was for the better. We both want to live lives that are worthy of the sacrifice of those troops. We want to do things to help the families of the deceased and wounded. We will always be grateful for their sacrifice, and that of their families. The admiration and respect we have for those who served our country in OIF and OEF is beyond description. We are humbled to be among their number.
But if I ever have another period in my life when I am not grateful for my family and those blessings, or if I am not grateful and enthusiastic about the activities in which I am engaged for the betterment of my corner of the world, I will seek a behavioral health specialist again. Just to talk and figure out what's wrong. I want to "put on a happy face", but one that is genuine, and an honest response to the gratitude I feel for the life I have. I want that for all of us.
If you think you might have depression, you can take a Military Pathways online mental health screening. Please don't hesitate to find someone to talk to who has the background and training to help you, if you know you are not yourself. Do it for those you love. Do it for those who love you! If the professional you meet does not seem to be meeting your needs, find another. This is a deeply personal decision all the way down the line. This is about what's best for you!
Lynda MacFarland is a National Military Family Association volunteer and Army wife of 28 years and counting. Lynda is living a life full of many blessings for which she is eternally grateful. This article originally appeared on the Military Pathways blog.
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