Today is a grey day. It’s raining outside, and it’s a little chilly. But that’s not quite what I’m referring to. Today, I feel grey. I am grey. My outlook is grey. Colours seem muted. I’ve just realised, looking down at the outfit I’ve donned for work, that I am wearing grey, an unconscious decision which seems to better embody the feeling that has taken hold and saturated my being.
This morning I saw a post on Facebook encouraging people to take a selfie using the hashtag #stigmafree – the purpose of which is to challenge the stigma of speaking up about mental health issues, which silently affects so many people. I guess that’s what has triggered this post today. I have suffered from depression for many years – possibly since I was quite young, but in retrospect, it recognisably manifested in a more tangible form around the time I was taking my A-levels, and resulted in me taking a lot of time off school. I’d spent years dealing with crippling self doubt, which no doubt came across to my peers as haughty aloofness, perhaps even appear to be slightly narcissistic and self absorbed– but it was my way of withdrawing from everyone around me. I’ve never been quick to make friends as I was always the outsider, with a different way of seeing things and interacting with the world than most other people that I knew– that feeling, during my formative years, of never belonging, of never being able to integrate, compounded my feelings of low self worth and intensified my depression, and contributed to certain types of people singling me out and victimising me in different ways, by either bullying me, or trying to subtly show me up or put me down in front of fellow pupils, colleagues or friends.
Some people see depression as being somewhat selfish. They assume that we are allowing ourselves to sit and wallow, mired in self pity. I don’t believe that it is selfish. I do not choose to feel like this; I can’t tell you how angry it makes me when people take this attitude – as if I want to wake up feeling this way? As if I want to feel like I can’t cope, or that I choose to feel like I can derive no pleasure from anything, or choose to feel as though I don’t want to get out of bed; as if I make the decision that, for the whole day, I’ll just curl up into the foetal position and pretend that the world around me doesn’t exist because it’s easier to get through the day that way? Sometimes, I wish I could give people a little test drive inside my head. To see how hard it can be sometimes – on the days where the foetal is the most attractive position to adopt – to make the decision to just get up. Swing your feet out of the bed. Put them on the floor. Put one foot in front of the other, taking the day – quite literally step by step – as you go about your ablutions, affairs, work, like a golem or automaton, hollowed out by the despair that often has no rhyme or reason, the anguish that you’re desperately trying to control, to prevent it turning into another downward spiral, like being sucked into quicksand – you try and keep your head above the grains of sand as they drag you down, but sometimes the more you struggle, the more stuck you become. You feel like you’re wading through treacle. Everything is an effort – self care, conversations, blinking.
It is undoubtedly difficult to live with or be around someone who suffers from depression. The people who are the most likely to bear the brunt of it – your partner, your work colleagues, family, and some of your closest friends – sometimes all they see is the condition and the effect it has on them; the dark mood that you exude, the withdrawal from interpersonal interactions, irritability, snappiness – they eventually don’t see the person beyond that. This dehumanises you as the sufferer, reducing you to a parody, a caricature of the condition – they perhaps moan amongst themselves about how often you are miserable, no fun, not pulling your weight, making you somehow less than the sum of your parts. It’s all too easy for them to alienate you, because there’s only so much they can cope with.
And I understand, I really do – I don’t want to spend time in my own head when I’m feeling grey, so I can imagine all too well how I suck the life out of the office, out of everyday situations with those closest to me – which is why I find it’s far better to withdraw for a spell, rather than inflict my pain on those around me because I realise how unfair it is to everyone, and I absolutely recognise the burden I place on others when I’m in the depths of my particular brand of despair. I have also conditioned myself to talk rarely about how I feel, for fear of receiving those blank stares that I know all too well – the blank stares of people that don’t understand because they’ve never been there. The blank stares of people who are able to sympathise, to a point, but never empathise. The blank stares of those who perhaps suffered a bout of situational depression at some point in their lives, and feel that you should be able to pull through your own in the same way that they have. The blank stares of those who don’t understand that I don’t want to be faced with a blister pack of “happy” pills every morning, and that above all else, I just wish I could fix myself and feel well, whole, grateful – anything but this. Eventually, the blank stares become more x-ray vision – people seem to look through you with eyes glazed over,or their gaze slides off you as if you’re covered in some sort of invisible oil slick, just in case you try and engage them in a conversation, just in case they have to acknowledge you, just in case they ask how you’re feeling today, and you dare to offer them the truth of your suffering. To tell them that you feel like you’re looking at life through a dirty window – you can see people going about their business, being happy, grateful, positive – but you’re separated by an almost intangible barrier, prevented somehow from feeling the same way by a film of grime upon your soul. Sounds rather melodramatic, doesn’t it?
I myself have been guilty of becoming short tempered with people around me who have acted out as a result of their own internal suffering, a shortcoming that leaves me feeling horrified with myself, and abhorrent of my thoughts towards them. How can I, sufferer of depression, espouse the need for tolerance, love and understanding towards fellow sufferers, when I myself seem to be unable to do the same? Perhaps it is because I loathe my inner angst so deeply, that I am unable to process and feel empathy for someone who is similarly afflicted, in case it will somehow act as a trigger for a bout of despair? In any case, recent events with one or two people closest to me have re-focussed my need to be tolerant, to question why they are acting they way they are, to wonder what is going on behind the scenes, in their heads, to make them behave the way they are, instead of assuming they’re being arseholes. Do they need help? Can I reach out to them in some way? Or do I just make it clear that I am available for them to reach out to me, should they need an ear, or a shoulder, or whatever support I am able to provide?
I know that it’s easier for you to ignore someone who isn’t acting quite themselves. Perhaps you’ve got a lot going on in your own life, perhaps you’re struggling in some way too, and don’t feel that you can cope with the burden of someone else’s pain. Perhaps you’re afraid to speak to that person, because you don’t know what to say, or you’re worried you’ll say the wrong thing. (Top tip – don’t tell them to cheer up, pull themselves together, or suggest they go out for a walk, or any other sort of “helpful” snippet of help. Just don’t. I mean it, just fucking don’t, ok?). It is ok not to know what to say – all we need to know is that you are there for us, that you’re prepared to listen – we don’t want you to make it better, we don’t want you to share the burden. You almost certainly can’t imagine what it’s like, because depression is such an individual, solitary journey. We just want to be treated like a human being, visible in all our dysfunctional glory. Acknowledged, seen, heard. You have no idea how such a small act can positively affect us, can make the difference between being sucked into the quicksand, or being able to slowly crawl back out into the light.