depression wears bright lipstick
I was fascinated with a lot of things as a child: caterpillars, Barney, coloring on walls. But one of the things that fascinated me most, seemingly incongruous with my tomboy persona, was lipstick. My mother didn’t wear it often, but whenever she did, I would make her kiss me right before she left the house so that I could pretend I was wearing it, too. I thought it was beautiful and exotic and, of course, it made me feel like a princess.
On Christmas mornings, I would squeal if I discovered that Santa left me yet another makeup kit alongside new soccer cleats under the tree. And when I got Milky Gel Pens one year for my birthday (I grew up in the ‘90s, these things were essential), I immediately ran to my room, closed the door, and proceeded to give my American Girl doll, Samantha, a Gel Pen makeover. My heart raced with excitement as I held Samantha’s vinyl face and proceeded to run the baby blue Gel Pen across her plastic eyelids and then finished her look off with bright pink ink swept across her little lips. My mother was furious, but I thought Samantha looked perfect.
Now as an adult who realizes how expensive American Girl dolls are, I appreciate that my mother would have been fully vindicated in grounding me for life for this horrific defacement. But back then, I was delighted at my ability to change Sam’s look in minutes. A burgeoning Anglophile, I had previously given Samantha a British accent (which makes sense for an American Girl doll to have - insert face palm emoji here), and I wanted her to have a look that matched her idiosyncratic adoption of the Queen’s English. To me, lipstick was sophisticated and posh and regal, and in my childhood head, Sam now looked (and sounded) like she was all of those things. (Editor’s note: in reality, she looked like a circus freak– and she (I) had an atrocious British accent).
My love for makeup only intensified when my father finally deemed me old enough to wear it outside of the house. And when I started performing as a songwriter, most of my pre-show routine consisted of playful trial and error attempts at creating the perfect on-stage look. Admittedly mostly error for the first few years, I cycled through cringe-worthy experimental phases of too much eye liner, then too much blush, then too much eye shadow, before finally adhering to the “less is more” adage.
But it wasn’t until my early twenties that I rediscovered the item that had gotten me hooked on makeup in the first place: lipstick. I fell in love with how “put together” it made me feel. I felt polished. I felt confident. I felt badass. And during my college bar scene phase, I found and solidified my signature “look.” Instead of the subtle nude or classic red, my trademark lipstick became a bright fuchsia pink.
“It matches your personality,” I would get a lot from friends and from new acquaintances I’d drunkenly bonded with while waiting in line for the bar’s only bathroom. As a color, fuchsia is bright, fun, bold, and a little off center from the norm, and I loved how wearing it on my lips made me feel. I still do. Aside from the instant mood boost that the simple act of applying it can offer, bold lipstick also externally gives off a certain perception to others: “That girl has her sh*t together. She’s confident. She can handle anything.”
But perceptions are only part of the story, and sometimes carefully applied fuchsia lipstick can mask entrenched inner feelings that are more akin to a botched Gel Pen makeover. I was reminded of this polarity the other weekend when one of my best and oldest friends came to visit.
We were catching up on life and while I was telling her about a recent confusing situation, I started trying to analyze the intentions of the other person involved when she jumped in: “Yes, but you have to remember that you come across as completely poised and confident and sure of yourself, so sometimes people don’t know what you’re thinking or feeling on the inside.”
I immediately looked down at the giraffe mug in my hands and, catching a glimpse of my reflection in what was left of the black coffee it held, I concededly nodded. I had no rebuttal because I knew she was right: For those who don’t know me well, there is often a vast difference between what they perceive about me based on the external and what I am feeling internally.
I come across as the things she mentioned because I have spent a lot of time challenging myself to improve in those areas, and I’ve successfully been able to evolve from a cripplingly shy child into a woman who can sing, public speak, and crack jokes in front of large crowds without batting an eye. I am now poised because I worked hard to discover my own values and truths, and I hold to them even when others don’t understand. I have spent years working on myself and, in doing so, I have ultimately learned how to expertly apply lipstick to the metaphorical face of my life. So, when people see the exterior and the perception I give off, it’s hard to imagine the inside being any different.
It’s difficult for people who aren’t in my inner circle, who haven’t sat with me in my fears and insecurities and self-doubts and pain, to believe that underneath my confident and poised exterior, there’s a whole lot of mess and anxiety.
Illustratively, towards the beginning of quarantine, I received an out-of-the-blue message from an old teammate. She wrote to say how strong she thought I was and how much she admired that I’m comfortable with myself and don’t need validation from others. She mentioned that she looked up to the fact that I don’t need to be with someone to feel good about myself.
Ironically, earlier that same day, I had been crying because of how alone I felt. I had been doubting my own self-worth and questioning if I was deserving of love. She couldn’t have known that underneath the “lipstick” and the external perception, there was an insecure girl desperately craving connection.
A few weeks later, still in quarantine, I was headed back to my front door after walking my dog when my neighbor and his wife started walking out of their house with theirs. We hadn’t seen each other much because we were both abiding by the social distance recommendations and so, from six feet away, he asked how I was doing and if I needed anything. His wife immediately chimed in and said “Of course she’s ok, she’s always ok! She’s always good!” and she gave me a huge smile. I forcibly laughed and said, “That’s true, I’m good, thank you.” I then unlocked my door, walked inside, shut the door behind me, and cried.
I cried because I am the teammate who is always strong. Because I am the neighbor who is always ok. Because I am the friend who is always good. Except I’m not.
Under the lipstick, I am the teammate who has been battling depression since I was fifteen years old. I am the neighbor who has been suicidal. I am the friend who has questioned her own worth and purpose and deservedness of life. I am also the friend who has refused to reach out in my darkest moments, because I am the one who is always strong. But there’s an inherent problem with that statement: the fact that I associate being strong with hiding pain.
So why do I equate strength with solitude? With suppression of emotion? With masking my brokenness? With bright bold lipstick? Why can’t I can be the one who is strong and vulnerable enough to admit that at times my depression gets the upper-hand?
The thought that strength and vulnerability are mutually exclusive is what keeps a lot of people silent about their struggles, and it especially exacerbates mental health issues for men: The notion that if you admit to feeling pain, then you are weak. Although it’s getting better, our culture still perpetuates the ideology that “strong” means “always ok,” and that you are therefore not strong if you do admit to feeling anxious or depressed, or if you do talk openly about your mental health.
This belief system has been deeply ingrained in society and, most of the time, it’s passed on in subtly innocuous ways. It’s only in looking back that I recognized some of the moments in my own life that led me to unhealthily embrace the “strong means always ok” principle.
For example, when I was still pretty young, there was a day when I tripped down our front porch steps as my family was leaving the house. Landing on our stone walkway, I scraped up my knees and hands pretty badly and we had to go back inside to clean up the blood. My oldest brother (7 years my senior - a big enough age gap to make him an idol in my eyes throughout my childhood) told me how proud he was that I didn’t cry. Thrilled with his approval and rare high praise, I internalized the ability to suppress tears as a symbol of strength.
A few years later, I broke my hand in the middle of a soccer game, but I didn’t let anyone know how severe the injury was. I told my coach I was fine and that I didn’t need to come off the field, and then I battled back tears and finished the game in blinding pain. It wasn’t until I got into my dad’s car after the final whistle that I told him I needed to go to the hospital, and my brother bragged incessantly to his friends about it. He equated my ability to conceal pain and emotion with toughness, and he boasted it as one of the superior qualities of my character.
As a kid, it made me beam with pride every time I was verbally rewarded for successfully hiding pain. As an adult, that’s been a hard lesson to un-learn. However, I don’t and can’t blame my brother for passing on this ideology because it’s the same one that, as a male, he had no choice but to be indoctrinated with from birth.
While I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be an adult man struggling with mental health who has been told his whole life that strength means hiding pain, I did have a front-seat view into one of the environments that fosters this damaging lie.
I often trained with boys’ soccer teams growing up, and I learned quickly how absolutely vital it is to survival in a male athletic atmosphere to hide any and all perceived signs of “weakness.” Whenever I was hit hard (which was pretty often in the beginning because, until they warmed up to the idea, they hated having a girl there), I learned to pretend it didn’t hurt. I earned their respect each time I immediately got up from the ground without complaining and hit back harder on the next play.
Training with them undoubtedly made me a better soccer player, but it also fused the impermeable line my brain was connecting between strength and suppression. Even back then, I knew that fitting in with the boys meant never showing pain, be it physical or emotional. It meant always being ok and “acting tough” no matter how I actually felt.
But my participation in their world, and this cultural custom, was voluntary. While I was expected to adapt to the environment, the fact that I was a girl meant I wouldn’t have been ostracized if I didn’t. But for young boys, not adapting is not an option. Showing pain is not an option. There is an unwritten clause in the “how to survive boyhood” manual that you will “suck it up” and carry on as though nothing is wrong, and that you will never show pain lest you be labeled weak.
It’s no wonder men grow up and struggle to express their emotions, or to even understand them. It’s also no wonder that while more women are diagnosed with depression than men, more men die by suicide than women: because men don’t talk about their struggles out of fear of seeming weak. This makes it hard for them to admit when they do need help, and many men don’t feel like they even have the option of saying when they’re not ok.
It’s not easy to dismantle an entire unconscious societal philosophy. It’s not easy to one day wake up and say “hey, I’m going to be vulnerable today and not worry about the social ramifications or how others view me!” But instead of associating strength with suppressed emotions, it’s strength and vulnerability that the world should view as synonymous because, in reality, ultimate strength lies in letting people see the truth. It takes an abundant amount of courage to take a deep breath, open up, and let others see you in your humanity. And that’s something I’m resolved to do more of myself.
Paradoxically, one of the cruelest and yet simultaneously healing aspects of quarantine for me has been the solitude. It has forced me to do a lot of self-reflection, culminating in the realization that as soon as I start feeling stressed, or “not ok,” I self-isolate on purpose and make myself more alone than I have to be. I keep friends at arm’s distance, and I especially keep romantic interests at arm’s distance. After a lifetime of learning how to act like I’m ok when I’m not, it’s hard to even think about letting people see me transparently when I’m struggling.
But I don’t always want to be the “strong” one. There are times when I want to be the one who gets to cry on someone else’s shoulder, but instead I push away any shoulder that isn’t my own. I’ve convinced myself that I have to be the one to dry my own tears and that if anyone does sees me cry, they will think I’m weak. So, I desperately attempt to hide my mess. My pain. My darkness.
I attempt to conceal when the lipstick on my life comes off. When the dishes in my sink are overflowing. And clothes are all over my bedroom floor. And takeout containers are on my counter because I couldn’t bring myself to cook or take out the trash. When I haven’t felt like vacuuming the dog hair off the couch. When I haven’t felt like making my bed. When I’ve cried on my bedroom floor convinced that no one loves me. When I’ve questioned why God made me. When I’ve wondered if life would be better for others if I weren’t here.
I hide the unattractive aspects of my reality because I’m afraid of what people will think of me if they see me fitting the classic stereotypical image of depression: a messy house, unwashed hair, ignored responsibilities, poor nutrition, lethargy, tears, and surrendered accepting of incessant oppressive self-sabotaging thoughts. I’m afraid of being considered weak, so I mask the symptoms I’m ashamed of, which makes it hard for even those closest to me to realize that the illness is still there even when they see a polished exterior.
But depression doesn’t always fit a stereotype, and mine is still present even when those symptoms aren’t. It still exists even when I’m fully functioning.
Because depression is also showing up for work early and completing tasks on time. It’s going to social functions and being the life of the party. It’s a spotless apartment. It’s meal prepping. It’s a perfectly organized closet. It’s showering and pampering and face masks and nail polish. It’s seeing friends and going on dates. It’s bright fuchsia lipstick.
It’s Robin Williams making people laugh.
It’s Kate Spade accessorizing the world with bright colors.
It’s then being shocked by their deaths because there was no indication that anything was wrong.
But the lively features of their personalities were not fake: They were merely the light side of a coin, and the flip side was the darkness that they faced alone and in secret. The dark was always there, even when their light was showcased to and celebrated by the world.
In daily life, I smile and laugh a lot. I dance and joke and feel easy to be around. I wear bright lipstick. This lightness of my personality isn’t fake: I genuinely love laughing, and making people laugh, more than anything, and at one point in my on-again-off-again relationship with dating apps, my bio merely stated the Buddy the Elf quote that perfectly sums up my nature: “I love smiling, smiling’s my favorite.” I love being goofy and enjoying life like a little kid, but there are two sides to the coin of my personality. My yang has its yin, and my light has an equal and opposite dark.
I’ve been so afraid that people who love me when I’m light, bubbly, and funny will suddenly stop loving me if they see me when I’m dark, numb, and hurting, so I’ve hidden when I’ve been in pain and chalked it up to being “strong.” But I don’t want to be so concerned with being seen as strong that I forget what true strength is: vulnerability.
Being strong doesn’t mean carrying everything by myself. It means being able to admit when I need help with the weight.
If you’re familiar at all with biblical stores, you may remember the account of Jesus as he carried his cross. (footnote: I’m not mentioning this to promote a certain belief system, but rather to draw insight from a pertinent story; many non-Christian spiritual leaders throughout history still found and taught the seeds of wisdom interspersed in the chronicles of Jesus).
As Jesus carried the cross, He collapsed three different times from exhaustion. After the third fall, when it was clear He couldn’t continue walking alone, someone from the crowd helped Him carry the weight of the wood the rest of the way.
Taking into account the fact that Christians believe Jesus is God Himself, and that His life was an example for humanity to follow, there are a few conclusions that can be ascertained from the passage:
The final implication of the story is one that hit me fairly hard: Jesus wasn’t too proud to accept help in his most vulnerable moment, which means I shouldn’t be either.
We’re all struggling a little more than usual right now. Mental health concerns are rising. Depression and anxiety levels are rising. Suicide rates are rising. The world feels especially heavy. If you are typically known as the strong one, it’s ok to admit that sometimes you need help carrying the load.
And if you happen to see the popular phrase that circles around social media any time someone unexpectedly dies by suicide, “check on your strong friends,” I’m going to humbly implore that you read it a little differently. While it’s an extremely important message to share, if you do check in on your strong friends, they’re going to lie to you.
They will thank you for checking in, tell you that they’re fine, make you laugh, and then change the subject. It’s only when you’ve stopped looking that they will close their door and continue to hurt in private. I know this because it’s been my M.O. when my friends have checked in on me in the past, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun being more open about my mental health during a struggle, not only after.
So instead of asking “how are you doing with everything?” or “are you ok?” I think it would be more effective to say something along the lines of:
“Hey, I know how strong you are and that you are capable of handling so much. But just in case you ever do want to talk about things, or even if you don’t, I want you to know that I love you and that I’m always here for you if things feel hectic. You don’t have to get dressed or clean your house or cook or even shower. You don’t even have to smile. We can even just sit and do nothing. I just want to be around you because I love you and you are important to me.”
With a message like that, there is no pressure for the person to admit anything. There’s no pressure for them to appear perfect. There’s the simple reminder that your love for the person is not conditionally based on the cleanliness of their home or the bubbliness of their personality. It’s a safe message to send and a safer message to receive.
I also think the “check on your strong friends” mantra misses the mark because it implies that some of your friends aren’t strong, and that’s total B.S. because life is hard and everyone handles what gets thrown at them the best they can. There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of strength. All of my friends are strong in their own ways. So instead of “check on your strong friends,” I believe it should be “check on everyone who grew up internalizing that hiding pain is strength.”
Because strong people struggle. Bubbly and funny people experience darkness. Bold and confident people feel insecure. People who are ok being alone still get lonely. And people who wear bright lipstick can have depression.
I am a strong person and I have depression. Sometimes, I need help carrying the weight of my own mind. Sometimes I need to be reminded that I am loved. Admitting that, not carrying it alone, is true strength.
So to every strong person out there (which is all of you), I wish for you what I wish for myself: the courage to let other people see the mess.
I’m slowly learning that it’s ok to be both light and dark. And that I am still worth loving even when the metaphorical lipstick comes off.
And so are you.