Every ninety days, I need a refill. Every few months, I have to sit in the waiting room and check off whether or not I am sleeping or eating or finding myself irritable. Every time I need a refill on my antidepressant, since I was nineteen years old, a receptionist has handed me this short questionnaire before I see the doctor.
It’s usually pretty mundane. I give her my last name, she passes me the paper, and I quietly take a seat. I work through the standard questions on depression and hand it back to her. I play a game on my phone until the doctor calls me in. Until recently, this interaction has never ensued any differently, always the same back and forth between us. But a few weeks ago, a receptionist I wasn’t as familiar with broke the script we usually follow.
Like always, I smiled when I approached the front desk, ever polite despite wanting to be elsewhere. I saw the questionnaire next to the receptionist, the section I was supposed to complete already highlighted. Upon hearing my last name, a confused look took over her face and she eyed me up and down.
“Depression?” She asked, handing me the clipboard. “You don’t look like you have that.”
Taken off guard, I awkwardly laughed and found a seat in the waiting room. I checked off my answers honestly and felt my body heating up. Her comment toppled around in my mind; the blatant assumption was upsetting me and I couldn’t tell if I was overreacting. I wondered, Should I tell the doctor? Or should I brush it off as an ignorant choice of words?
After debating right through the entire appointment, I ended up blurting it out to the doctor. She thanked me for telling her and I felt better knowing that the next patient wouldn’t have to hear something similar. I wish this receptionist had considered her words a little more carefully, because what we’re all so desperately trying to get across here is really very simple: there is no face of mental illness.
No face of depression or anxiety. No face of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or OCD. No specific look or standard visage that one can point out in a crowd of people. These illnesses come in every color and in every shape, at different times and through all ages. The receptionist was right. I don’t “look” like I have depression because there is no possible way to look as so.
I also don’t look like I have two brothers or the ability to wiggle my ears or an addiction to coffee, but I do. I don’t look like I can play the flute, or was born in Florida, or have sleeping problems, but that’s all true too. And I don’t look like I’m sad or anxious, because sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I laugh and I mean it. Sometimes my coworker or roommate says something funny and I smile and continue the conversation. Sometimes I have good days. Really, really awesome days.
I go to therapy. I also go to happy hour, and small coffee shops, and CVS when I need cheap makeup. I take an antidepressant every day. I also take an allergy pill and birth control and, when I have a headache, two Excedrin. I still sleep with a teddy bear, but I take tequila shots on Saturday nights. Sometimes I don’t eat for days at a time; instead I drink black coffee and red wine and I cry. Sometimes I go to the gym before work and make a fruit smoothie for the commute. None of it really makes any sense out loud.
And that’s why no one talks about it. I struggle every day to get out of bed. I have tackled so much grief, emotional abuse, and insecurity that it often doesn’t feel worth it to wake up in the morning, board the train, and carry on with my day. And what strikes true pain in my heart is knowing so many people have it much worse than I do, that there are those who battle much larger demons and complex obstacles than I will ever face in this lifetime.
To the receptionist at the doctor’s office and anyone else who doesn’t understand, let me tell you this, please. Let me tell you this because there are hilarious comedians and talented chefs and beautiful fashion designers who are killing themselves. Because there are boys from the suburbs and girls from the city who are taking their own lives. Let me tell you this and let yourself listen. Someone like me might laugh a lot and wear nice clothes and pay her rent on time; it won’t “look” like she’s struggling to you, but it doesn’t mean she’s not.
There is no way to tell what someone is fighting through other than engaging in simple conversation. Ask your best friend, your colleague, or the stranger next to you how they are doing. Check up on those you are close to, because it’s a scary world and some people want to leave. Life is not always beautiful, but sometimes it’s extraordinary, and it’s worth sticking around for. I know not everyone can be saved. So if we can save but one, I still think we’re doing the best we possibly can.