Depression is a Multi-Faceted Creature
The first time I was depressed, I didn’t know it. I didn’t understand the extent of the word, I didn’t know the symptoms – I was a child. I was tempestuous and hot headed, but in an effort of stubborn stoicism, fought with every effort to conceal it. I commanded rage inwards in huge swelling waves, in a manner that made me habitually furious with myself until one day, I sat methodically unscrewing my school stationary and jamming it into my left arm as a manner of stress relief. I don’t know where or when I was struck by the idea to do so – I only know that the feeling is one which resonated with me in the fifteen years that followed, allowing demons to feel like frequent and tedious friends.
For reasons beyond my comprehension, we have allowed depression to be characterised as a sad and tragic, but somehow beautiful, period of darkness. Though depression has many faces; angry, vicious, devastated, quiet, bored to name a few – I’ve never considered any of them as beautiful. I’m glad that TV is beginning to explore mental health in a less harmful way (characters we can empathise with, rather than the dangerous ‘psychopaths’ of horrors gone by), but I am often left sneering at the wholesome, fixable images we are offered. We watch (predominantly female) characters experience depression that is usually a ‘reasonable’ reaction to something very specific, before eventually achieving some kind of emotional epiphany via yoga/an enlightened stranger/romance - surrounded by promise and the black dog never to be spoken of again.
Though everyone experiences depression differently, I’ve never met anyone who suffers from mental health problems that hasn’t found the majority of these measly offerings to be problematic. I’m confident in my belief that this is part of the reason we find depression so hard to recognise not only in ourselves but in others. The issue is not just that we rarely speak of mental health at all, but even when we do, we stifle our own truth. We feel inclined to make our experiences palatable for others rather than speaking honestly about the things that happen to us when we are not well. We may feel brave enough to say that we cannot sleep, we cannot stop crying, we cannot eat but rarely do we feel comfortable with voicing our inability to find the motivation to shower for a whole week; that contrary to the glamorised ideal that depression causes weight loss, we can’t stop eating; nor do we feel comfortable saying that rather than gentle, tolerable crying, ‘I don’t cry at all — mostly I just think about killing myself’.
There is a real culture among many, that if we cannot see it, then it must not be real. She doesn’t look that sad. She seemed fine to me? I very rarely cry when I’m depressed. I don’t feel unbearable sadness, I don’t sit gazing endlessly at the landscape. A lot of the time, it’s as though I don’t feel anything at all, which is why it can be easy for us to trick ourselves into believing that we’re fine. This allows us to be critical of others when they’re irritable or moody, we roll our eyes when they stop talking to us, assuming they’ve obviously found preferable company. We have developed a dangerous habit of only feeling sympathy for people who look sad, rather than feeling concerned by unfavorable changes in behaviour, brushing it off as ‘they’re such a dick sometimes’.
Though I’ve never really found other people’s sympathy to be medicinal, people’s failure to even attempt at understanding can cause twice the pain. One example in particular, nearly cost me my life- though I can’t blame them for how I felt, I often wish that I could tell them about the profound danger of the way they chose to speak to me that day. I was 23 and struggling to meet the demands and challenges around me, as were many, except that I had never developed the psychological resilience required to endure the level of stress I was suddenly faced with. I was crawling through what was undoubtedly the worst period of depression in my life, and was chastised for ‘not being very chatty’ and ‘making no visible effort to socialise’ by someone who had no concept of what was happening to me. I desperately tried to explain that the reason I didn’t talk is because I was trying not to cry.
It’s one of the rare cases where I have found myself tearful at every passing thought. I was overwhelmed by emotion, and spent most of my time clenching my jaw, praying that nobody spoke to me because I didn’t possess the energy to think of something to say. And here I was, crying in front of what were two clearly very uncomfortable strangers, who expressed concern at my academic ability but not at my emotional welfare. I was left alone to ‘sort myself out and get on with it’. Instead, I withdrew to the toilet where I cried as quietly as I could for two laborious hours, the stench of rancid blue toilet duck lingering in my throat every time I held my breath to silence myself when another person came in. There, in a four foot wide cubicle I decided that when I got home, I would kill myself. Though I had first contemplated suicide at the age of 14, there was something different about what happened underneath the fluorescent lights of that bathroom. There appeared to be nothing left to contemplate. I was the last person to leave the building, avoiding the gaze of every person I passed. I had one objective only.
As I made my way home, the red ‘1’ dinged on my Whatsapp icon. Someone I had only known for a few months said she was going to come by after work — ‘I know you’re not looking after yourself. Do you need me to bring milk and bread? Do you have tea?’ By the time I got off the bus, she was already on my street. She doesn’t know it, because I’ve never told her, but her presence saved my life. I’m glad that she did.
Here is the thing about depression:
It looks different on everybody. Just because you can’t point at it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Some people can’t stop crying, while others wish they could, just for the cathartic release. It does not look like what they show you on TV. It is poor hygiene. It makes you want to lie down a lot, sometimes for days at a time, not watching TV, not crying, not talking, not sleeping. Sometimes, it’s sleeping for days at a time. It can feel like a relentless carousel of emotions or it can feel like nothing at all- numb, empty, void. Some people experience a single bout and recover, but many live through cycles, always finding a way back no matter how deep you bury it. Most of the time it creeps slowly before consuming you entirely; it’s insidious and insular. It blinds your ability to recall what came before or to visualise what could come after. It is exhausting, it is boring and grey. It can be a reaction to a tangible cause, but often leaves you lost, unable to explain why you possibly feel the way you do, yet always feeling obliged to give an answer. If I knew why I felt like this then I could stop it, even though we know we couldn’t. Some people recover, some people learn to manage- a few are painfully snatched from us forever, in some way or another. Help and care is nuanced and specific. Sometimes it takes more than one kind, sometimes you find it alone, sometimes you find it with help. If it’s not working, look for something else.
If you are fortunate enough to have never experienced the plight of mental illness, do all that you can to be considerate of what we cannot see in others. Reserve your judgements and suppress your own need for answers. Some of us don’t know why we’re suffering. Sometimes, rather than finding the right words, it is simply about being there. Nobody wants unsolicited advice and what you may feel is helpful is infuriating to someone with no concept of self-worth or value. Nobody is asking you to fix it. Sometimes it’s just about saying ‘that must be really shit. I’m so sorry you feel like that’ rather than telling someone what to do. If someone is being an uncharacteristically shitty version of themselves, worry about their well-being, rather than savouring the opportunity to bitch about them to the rest of your friends. It’s not excusable, but it’s really hard to be nice to other people when you spend all of your time wallowing in self-hatred.
If you do suffer from depression, know that it is an unrelenting liar and don’t believe anything it says. You are never alone, you are not a burden. You won’t feel this way forever. In spite of those who lack sympathy, there are others who will listen attentively. There are many who know the weight of what you are going through. Never feel guilty or regretful. Never feel obliged to continue with things that make you miserable out of a misplaced sense of duty- friendships, relationships, jobs, courses. If I could go back and peer over the walls of that tiny cubicle two years ago to say one thing it is this: no matter how much you want to die, eventually you will be glad you’re alive to feel the sun on your face and the endless landscapes which exist to remind us that just because we can only see so far from where we stand, it doesn’t mean that we can’t reach what is beyond the horizon.