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Not allowed to be happy

By Makenzi Johnson

“How are you?”

“I’m okay. Not the best. My depression is kind of bad today, but I’m alive and breathing.”

I answered honestly. I started noticing that oh-so-familiar nagging, tug at my heart, the heaviness on my chest and gray cloud hanging over my head, and even so, I answered honestly.  

Later on that same day, I was with friends laughing and smiling while waiting for Men’s Dance to start in the gym. In the moment, I could forget about my depression creeping in. The same person who saw me that morning and asked how I was came up to me again and said, “Oh, I see you’re doing better.” 

I didn’t know how to respond. Yes, at that moment I was enjoying myself and having fun. Did that mean that my depression was gone, now that I was smiling and laughing? 

Despite the smile on my face, I could still feel that dark cloud lurking around like an annoying headache. It’s always there. Sometimes I can ignore it. Sometimes I can’t. 

I answered, not so honestly this time — “Yeah, I’m fine,” as I pulled a tight-lipped smile. I didn’t have the energy to tell this person, again, that I wasn’t feeling OK. Would they believe me? They just saw me having fun and seemingly feeling A-OK. Did they think I was lying this morning because of the smile on my face now? 

I don’t believe the person had bad intentions by asking or assuming that I was feeling better, yet it made me feel as though I was doing something wrong by enjoying myself, smiling or laughing. 

It felt like I wasn’t allowed to be happy. 

This paradox isn’t a new one. Since I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety six years ago, I felt like I couldn’t allow my bad days to show. I was known as that blonde girl who was always smiling and giggling. I couldn’t ruin my reputation by letting people know that I was feeling sad one day.

Once I started being more honest about my mental health, people were hesitant to take me seriously when I opened up to them. The concept of me being sad was seemingly foreign to them. There wasn’t a space for me to coexist with depression while also being able to enjoy life. There was no way I could be happy and still struggle with depression. 

I like to think about it like this: My depression is like a flower. 

In a garden, a flower is not in bloom 24/7. Some die during the winter, some lie dormant when the frost hits then perk up once the frost turns to dew, some flowers only spread their petals when the moon shines, but tightly close up when the sun begins to rise. We cannot expect a flower to be in bloom all of the time. 

Nobody can expect a person to be one way all of the time, either. 

Can I have depression, but still feel joy when I laugh with friends at Pete Davidson and Timothée Chalamet’s Rap Roundtable SNL skit, my 17-year-old brother’s text lingo or corny dad jokes? When I get a letter from my grandma in my P.O. box? When I listen to ABBA and dance around my room? 

Am I allowed to be like a flower and only bloom for a few moments? 

Flowers aren’t in bloom every day. It’s not always sunny in Philadelphia and contrary to what Fleetwood Mac says, thunder doesn’t always happen when it’s raining. 

Am I allowed to be happy?

I think I am. A flower never blooms year round and I don’t expect myself to either. 

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