This isn’t going to be the usual list of misconceptions about mental illness. There are a lot of articles these days telling you that depression is like a physical illness, in that you can’t help it, and that it’s not something you can snap out of at will. Instead I’m going to be talking about two things depressives themselves talk about which I think are damaging to the discourse as a whole.
The first is that people who have never had depression just won’t “get it”, and won’t be able to understand what you’re going through. This is, of course, true in some cases, and was in fact true of me before I suffered from depression. A friend had it and I didn’t understand, and was not always as supportive as I could have been. But there is a big difference between not understanding it, and not being willing to understand it.
I know many people who have never suffered from depression, but are absolute lifelines to people in their lives who do. Not because they understand exactly why their loved one is a puddle on the floor for no apparent reason, but because they want to try to understand and they want to do what they can to help. My Dad is a case in point. He has told me before that he doesn’t understand depression, which doesn’t surprise me because he is a very positive-minded person, who deals mostly in logic and isn’t hugely emotional. But he made a huge effort to understand what I went through, and to help when he could, so even though he didn’t “get it” I would never say something like that to him. It didn’t matter whether he could empathise exactly with my feelings or not. He asked me if he could help, and we worked together on finding things that made a difference.
Other people in my life were not so understanding, and despite my best efforts at describing how I felt and what I needed from them, there isn’t anything you can do if people are not willing to listen. If people are determined to see what is happening to you as a problem that you could drag yourself out of if you only really wanted to, there is no point keeping on talking. These are the people who will only get more frustrated by you the more you are sad and hopeless, and you need to get some distance if you can because there is nothing worse than someone asking you what’s wrong, and you saying you’re not sure but you feel bloody awful, and them replying irritably with: ‘well – can’t you just – CHEER UP!’
I think it is doing a disservice to keep saying that all people who haven’t had depression just won’t “get it”, implying that they won’t be able to help those that are suffering. If people are willing to try to understand, they can learn the symptoms and learn what helps people to overcome them without ever needing to step inside the pit themselves.
The second misconception about depression I’ve come across recently, most obviously put in this article written after Robin Williams’s death, is the idea that for those who have suffered from depression, it will never fully go away. I remember my doctor telling me that there were different types of depressives: some people have a chemical imbalance, or a predisposition, or something in their make-up which means that they could be a millionaire on a desert island and they would still have depression. Other people get depression because they are under a lot of strain for a long time, and something snaps, but they wouldn’t be depressed no matter what. I was one of the latter type. Perhaps the person writing the article on Robin Williams is one of the former types, in which case, depression may well be something he struggles from his entire life, and I feel very sorry for him.
But I think there is a tendency to feel like depression is always going to be hanging over you, even if you’re feeling better at that moment. I’ve found myself doing exactly that over the last year or more, when I’ve generally been very well. I catch myself thinking that I shouldn’t do certain things, or risk certain things, because what if I got ill? I’m nervous about pushing myself too hard because of it. But then I thought to myself a few months ago, what would happen if I released myself from the thought that it was inevitably going to come back? I immediately felt more liberated and excited about the future. By always expecting that I am somehow weaker in my own mind than other people, and that I will always struggle to achieve, I think I’m living a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe there will be times in my life when things happen and I really can’t cope with getting out of bed in the morning, but there’s no reason why I should keep peering round the corner for it to happen and, in that way, invite that darkness back inside my head. For a long time now I’ve felt low in the way normal people feel low. I’ll have a crap week, normally made worse by lack of sleep, and I will feel totally disinterested in life the universe and everything. And then I’ll go out with a friend, or spend a weekend doing nothing, and then I’m all right again. Which is what happens to everyone.
For a long time I thought I suffered from anxiety, then I read a book about it called ‘My Age of Anxiety,’ and realised that compared to that guy, my anxiety is totally normal. I highly recommend it to anyone who feels anxious a lot, but gets through life without a cocktail of anti-anxiety drugs and/or a lot of alcohol. Made me feel ten times better. Plus it’s useful if you’re a logically-minded sort of person, who feels better just for knowing why things are happening. The book goes through a lot of the physical responses to anxiety, and why they happen, which I found very helpful indeed.
So really, this is a blog trying to make depression smaller. Yes, it can suck, and yes, some people won’t understand what you’re talking about and will make you feel worse because of it, and yes, some people will suffer from varying levels of depression their whole lives. But it doesn’t always have to be like that. 99% of the people I’ve talked to about my depression have been nothing but lovely and supportive, and most of those people haven’t suffered from it themselves. Sure, it’s good to have a friend who does know what it’s like who can help you, but that doesn’t mean that you should look at all the people who haven’t had it and say to them ‘You won’t get this. I’m not even going to try.’ They might be just who you need. And just because it’s tripped you up once, don’t keep waiting for it to trip you up again, because you’ll be missing a whole lot while you’re staring at the floor.