Nothing transforms a face like a smile. A smile is a dynamic tool in an arsenal of interactive social cues. Its power is contagious and breaks all barriers of language and culture. Before a baby speaks any word, he innately responds to a smile and quickly learns to use it as a means of communication. The progression of smiles is then proudly documented by his parents – first smile, toothless smile, dimpled smile, impish smile, smiles with braces, graduation smiles, wedding smiles.
A smile can speak volumes in any language, but what is it saying? It may be expressing pleasure, humor, satisfaction, affection, gratification or other aspects of happiness. However, sometimes the smile is simply a means of muffling an inner cry of pain, sorrow, worry and melancholy. A smile is the chosen instrument of circumvention. Behind the mask of a smile that radiates life, may lie a person whose heart and mind are darkened with turmoil.
To friends, acquaintances and even family, the smile seems to represent an accomplished, outgoing, bundle of energy that has life by the tail. They smile and the world smiles with them. The danger is that this may be exactly what they are trying to accomplish, for by making the world smile, it is easy to disguise your own despair. Others are beguiled into accepting the façade, and consequently, are blinded to the pain that lurks so closely beneath the surface. The National Alliance on Mental Health recognizes “smiling depression” as a major depressive disorder with atypical symptoms. Because of this, many don’t know they are battling depression and don’t seek help, leaving a disturbing link between smiling depression and suicide. A person who presents with “typical” depressive manifestations is easily recognized as troubled and friends and family know to intervene and seek help. But, the friends, family and co-workers of the always happy life of the party, never think to ask how he might really be doing.
This was the case of our son. His suicide shocked not only our family, but the entire community. If you had asked me to put a million names on a list of people I thought might ever die by suicide, his name wouldn’t have even been on the radar. There was no history of mental illness with him or any other family member. On the contrary, his gregarious personality and compassion made him a light to all he encountered. I talked with him on a Wednesday afternoon and knew that he was hurting over an issue, but never once thought it was something he wouldn’t be able to work through. Three hours later, I found him. I think back to the last conversation we had and wonder if I missed any clues or warnings. But, I know that he gave none. We were left with questions that may never be answered and a feeling of guilt that adds unbearable weight to the suffocating grief. I frantically dig through this dirty, smoldering pile of ashes that grief has left in its fury, for any glimpse of beauty to which I might cling. Maybe the beauty comes in sharing our story, and in removing my own mask so that others might recognize their own.
Let’s look behind the smiles and the masks. Let’s ask even the those who seem to be a source of joy for others how they are doing – not in some flippant gesture of greeting, but in sincerely offering a non-judgmental ear. Let’s live authentically, willing to remove our own masks so that others may feel comfortable in removing theirs. Let’s quit pointing fingers. Let’s destigmatize mental health and work together to make a difference in a hurting world.