Back in October, I read a Slate article about an amazing photography series called Dualities by Portland-based artist and instructor Liz Obert. The series explores how people with mental illness mask what they’re thinking and feeling from the outside world. To do this, she took two photos of each participant, one of how they present themselves to the world and the other as they are alone when in the throes of their illness. The images depict people in their homes, showing a concept likely very familiar to those with mental illness: our very different private and public personas, or “faces”, as I like to call them. The results are poignant and stunning.
Obert’s project presents incredible visuals showing the different faces we show the world. In my experience, I have far more than just two faces. Like Obert’s subjects, I have a private face. I also have a social face, a work face, and the face I show only my dearest friends (which is probably the closest anyone will ever see to my private face). If I think about it longer, I could probably come up with even more. I’ve got a whole kabuki drama worth of faces.
My work face is probably the one I wear more than any other than my private face. It is wholly unlike any of the other faces that I wear. The work face is confident, even arrogant. It’s talkative, eager, and full of initiative. With my work face on, I present at conferences, I participate in tongue twister tournaments, and I even get interviewed for local television programs. These are things there’s not a ghost chance in hell you’d catch me doing in any other context. In social situations, I don’t even particularly enjoy being in photographs or hearing the sound of my own voice, let alone getting up in front of other people and doing things.
I’m a classic introvert. My batteries only recharge when I’m alone or with a small group of friends. The work face therefore requires a lot of energy for me to wear, kind of like Ryu’s dragon form in Breath of Fire. (Why yes, I am a nerd. Why do you ask?) This isn’t so much a function of my dysthymia as it my personality.
Everyone, not just those of us with mental illness, has multiple faces they present to the world. If you’ve ever worked a customer service job, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Still, the work face makes me wonder: how can I have exude such confidence and competence in one setting and completely lack them in another? In my worse moments, the very existence of the work face makes me question whether I have a mental illness at all. Part of the perniciousness of mental illness for many is that the illness, combined with the still-present social stigma about mental health, sometimes makes you question whether you’re truly sick. “You’re trying to pass off your deep character flaws as mental illness”, I sometimes think to myself. After all, the very existence of the work face shows that I’m clearly capable of being the things my mind tells me that I’m not. With the work face on, it seems like I can do anything.
To borrow from Dr. Seuss, though, except when I don’t, because sometimes I won’t. When I fall into a major depressive episode as I did recently, even the almighty work face loses its strength. It takes incidents like that to remind me that my different faces are just roles that I play, consuming my stockpiles of introvert energy as I wear them. One of dysthymia’s common symptoms is lack of energy. If I’ve been managing my dysthymia poorly, I lack the energy to do much of anything. When I have limited energy, I end up putting a lot of it into my work because my identity is so tied up in it. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The challenge I’ve set for my treatment is how do I get those faces to converge a bit? How can I get some of that initiative and eagerness when I’m not at work? As an introvert, I realize that my different faces will never completely converge, nor, quite frankly, should they. But some equalization surely would help me both privately and publicly.