There has always been an unspoken expectation of military spouses. In the movie “The Right Stuff,” a seemingly innocent conversation among the test pilot wives at a barbeque nails it.
The spouses talk among themselves, about their fears for their husbands and families, and the expectation of the military for them in spite of everything to “maintain an even strength.”
There is pressure today within the military culture for spouses to stay strong. This is admirable and also directly contributes to the high incidence of smiling depression among us. It is estimated almost one fourth of military spouses suffer from this affliction. Some would argue the percentage is higher.
Smiling depression is characterized by the ability to carry on with life and day to day tasks and obligations despite feeling down. This high-functioning depression comes across as appearing happy to others, literally smiling while internally suffering from depressive symptoms.
Think about smiling depression as wearing a mask – offering no hint of sadness to the outside world. You maintain a full-time job, run a household, volunteer your time, and have an active social life. However, underneath you are suffering from sadness, panic attacks, low self-esteem, insomnia, and in some cases suicidal thoughts.
I personally experienced smiling depression in 1999. My husband was the Command Chief for Air Mobility Command and constantly on the road. We lost my father-in-law and mother within four months of each other. I felt there was an expectation because of my husband’s position that I needed to just smile and press through, so I did. Literally. When people asked how I was doing, I would smile and say, “Fine.” However the truth was I could barely get out of bed every morning.
The hallmark of smiling depression is sadness brought on by a failed relationship, career challenges, loss, lacking purpose, relocation, or a loved one’s absence. Other symptoms can include feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, fatigue, irritability, hopelessness, and despair.
The good news is that smiling depression is very treatable if you acknowledge it exists!
Many military spouses feel like no one really understands what they are going through. The truth is, we do!
Don’t be afraid to reach out. Spouses experiencing smiling depression can start by opening up to those around them. Opening up and sharing feelings is a key element in coping with depressive thoughts. Seek out an MSAN Mentor or someone you trust. Sometimes just talking over a cup of coffee alleviates symptoms.
If feelings of sadness persist, don’t be afraid to seek counseling. Military OneSource is a great place to start. A good counselor can help you develop strategies to deal with tough life situations.
We all have a hard time dealing with what life throws at us sometimes. Try not to succumb to the pressure of remaining strong under all circumstances. Throw that notion of maintaining an even strength out the window. You don’t have to hide behind your beautiful smile.
Carole Van Holbeck is a retired Air Force spouse, veteran (1978-1990), and former military dependent child. She is a mother of three sons, stepmother to three adult children, and grandmother to nine. A registered psychotherapist, she works as the Office Manager of Warrior Counseling & Consulting, a veteran mental health practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado started by her husband Ken in 2011. In this role, Carole engages with active duty military, veterans, and their families and understands current issues affecting this population.