When I’m really struggling internally, I overcompensate externally. Think Ross from Friends when he finds out about Rachel and Joey. That episode struck a chord with me because I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve tried to put on a good show and ended up looking like an absolute idiot. I’d get all loud and animated; try to be funny; try to convince others and myself that there’s nothing wrong. They say the unhappiest people are the ones that seem the happiest. For a large chunk of my school days, that was me. My face was laughing and smiling but my eyes weren’t. In my adult life, pretending got harder until I just couldn’t any more.
Why did I feel like I had to put on that front? Originally it was because I just wasn’t even acknowledging to myself that I had a problem. These days it’s more fear of how people would respond if I displayed my true emotions. Some people don’t “believe” in depression. I don’t know how, because it’s everywhere. The word “depressed” is flung around flippantly by people who are just upset about something or having a bad day. Maybe that’s where the apathy comes from. People who claim to be depressed trivialise the condition for those whose lives are genuinely blighted by it.
There are unwritten rules for answering certain questions. When people ask: “how are you?” they expect to get the statutory “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” Not: “I feel like I’m falling apart and I can’t cope,” or “I don’t know how I’ll get through the day,” or some other variation of the hellish truth. That makes for a rubbish situation where, even when you get texts or actual face-to-face enquiries into your wellbeing, you skirt around it or make something up or dismiss it.
“What have they got to be depressed about?”
I’ve dedicated the other half of this post to tackling some of the things I’ve heard people say relating to depression. This one usually rears its head when there’s a celebrity involved. Take Robin Williams for example. Known for his seemingly happy-go-lucky nature and vivacious sense of humour. Clearly his smile was hiding a world of pain. But he’s rich, he’s famous, he’s successful. What’s he got to be depressed about? We’ll never know the answer to that, but we need to stop asking the question. Or rather, we need to stop asking it in such a dismissive way. When the news broke about Aaron Lennon, it was immediately followed by references to his income and status as a Premier League footballer. Yes, there are people who have it worse economically and people who have had horrible, harrowing things happen to them throughout their lives and just “got on with it” but why use that as a stick to beat someone who is already at rock bottom? They will be well aware of all that. Everything you’re saying and thinking, they will have said to themselves ten times over. So then there’s the feeling of guilt thrown into the mix; the sense that they have no right to feel the way they do. That just compounds the issue.
“Don’t be so sensitive”
Depression’s not about sensitivity. Some of the strongest, toughest, take-no-prisoners- type of people suffer with depression. I know because I know them. There needs to be more openness and understanding surrounding mental health and well-being. But we don’t all need to be holding hands and showering each other with compliments and treading on eggshells, scared to say or do anything that may be misconstrued in some way. Far from it. When someone is in the pits of despair, the best thing you can do is just be there for them. In the most normal way possible. You don’t have to do anything spectacular or extraordinary. You don’t have to change your behaviour or your personality or the way you interact with them. You haven’t got a magic wand. You can’t fix their problems. But just being there can make all the difference. Sometimes, when wandering the corridors at work, perpetual cloud hanging ominously overhead, the sight of a friendly face coming towards me was enough to make me a bit better. If honest surveys were taken in the workplace, there would probably be a surprising number of people who are experiencing depression or anxiety, or have experienced it at some point in their lives. Everyone’s fighting their own battles. It would be so much easier if people could join forces.
“It’s attention seeking”
This one is dangerous, because if someone at rock bottom hears this about themselves, after they’ve plucked up the courage to disclose what they’re going through, it can send them spiralling into further isolation and their thought patterns spiralling down life-threatening avenues. When I hear the phrase “attention-seeking” used in relation to depression, it makes me laugh and makes me angry in equal parts. Do people really think I’ve devised this little world of hell for myself and decided to live in it just for the fun of it? That I choose to be a misery who can’t see the point in anything anymore? That I consciously throw away people and things and opportunities that mean a great deal to me because I just love to make life hard for myself? The isolation, the hopelessness, the despair, the panic, the dread, the turmoil, the cacophony of emotions – all of them negative – crushing my spirit day in day out. Love all that, me.