Another Word for Depression, Redux

This morning I read a blog post on maintaining creativity through depression. I wanted to like more than I did. I appreciated the candor with which the author shared her experience, and I completely agreed with her when she said that writers tend to get isolated and lonely and down in the dumps and need support from each other.

So what’s the problem? I took exception to her use of the word “depression.” Now, obviously I have NO CLUE of her personal experience. I don’t know this person at all, had never heard of her before. I only know what I read. But what I read made me sigh. It did indeed sound like she’d had some horrible, stressful stuff going on. But the way she recommended dealing was a lot of the same old stuff. “Force yourself to write.” “Get some exercise.” And all like that. Which made me think, “If you’re able to say that, you don’t actually know depression.”

I get super particular about the way people casually bandy around terms for mental illnesses to describe temporary states of consciousness, as represented here:

bipolar tweet

Because, I’ve got news for you:

mental illness three

When you say shit like that it sounds to a real person with one of those real illnesses like you are dismissing their real, possibly life-threatening, medical condition. It sounds like, “Yesterday I was feeling really diabetic!”  And it makes us think:

mental illness two

Anyway, in light of all that, I thought I’d re-publish a blog from about a year ago that talks about the reality of depression. Here it is.

This Tumblr post has been making the rounds. I first saw it last night. Because it speaks to something meaningful and incredibly relevant to me, I shared it. Since then, I have seen it everywhere. More people in my friends list have shared it in the last eighteen hours than anything else I’ve ever posted, ever.

In case you don’t feel like clicking the link and reading it for yourself, the post talks about what it’s like to suffer from severe, ongoing depression. It starts out “Depression is humiliating. It turns intelligent, kind people into zombies who can’t wash a dish or change their socks.” It goes on from there.

From my perspective, the post paints a poignant and accurate picture of what it’s like living with this illness. And it begs people who have had the good fortune never to experience it to stop judging, to listen, pay attention, and show compassion. From my perspective, this latter is what people suffering from depression want and need, and it’s a thing they don’t often get.

Why does my perspective matter? Those of you who know me will already know. For those of you who don’t know me: I have struggled with chronic severe depression my entire life. I live with it every day. I don’t really want to go into the details here. I don’t think I should have to do that for my point to be valid.

I’ve noticed an interesting thing with this post: people who understand it, whether they’ve suffered from depression themselves or seen a loved on go through it, share it. And people who don’t, or don’t seem to, understand it comment on it. Obviously I’m a single person and cannot have complete knowledge of how this post is making the rounds of the internet. And I have seen a few comments from people who do seem to understand what it’s talking about. But overall, my experience is as I have stated above.

You might ask how I can make the determination that the people commenting do not understand the experience. It’s because of what they have said. Things like, “this post is making something seem insurmountable when it’s not,” and “If you feel so bad you should get help” and “anti-depressants aren’t the answer; you need to learn to manage your thinking better.” Things that obviously come from the poster’s own bias and agenda. Things that tell me the posters have not done the thing the original Tumblr post begs them to do: Stop judging and listen.

I don’t like the word “defensive.” In my experience, it’s one of those psycho-babble terms that has come into common use without people knowing what it means, and it often gets used as a substitute for “you’ve said something that makes me uncomfortable and I don’t want to think about it, so I’m going to accuse you of speaking from your bias in order to invalidate you.” This happens a lot on the internet, where you have only print on a screen to tell you what might be on a person’s mind, and you lack the intonation and body language and all the subtle little signals that give a statement depth. From words alone, you cannot possibly tell whether a person is being defensive or not–unless, of course, s/he launches off into some completely unrelated or self-justifying tangent, or starts with the name-calling (also not uncommon on the internet). But honestly, the word gets a bad rap. What in the world is wrong with standing up for yourself or other people you care about? Isn’t that what defending something means?

Anyway, I tend to be defensive of my experience and other people who have had similar experiences. I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. I do not like it when people tell me, or another person in pain, to “just get over it,” or “pull up the big girl panties,” or “you have no reason to feel that,” or when they suggest I try prayer or meditation or this or that new therapy. I do not like it when people assume that in forty years of being cognizant of my own mental health issues I have not tried every damn thing on the face of the earth to have a normal life. That I am not still trying. Every day.

See, the number one thing that sucks about depression is the way people who have never experienced it cling to this belief that they have any idea at all what it’s like. Even if a person has experienced it, s/he cannot know what it’s like for another person experiencing it. Because it’s a mental process, and that makes it subjective by definition. We can guess. We can extrapolate. We can compare. But we can’t know.

And a sad truth is, many people–even many people who are supposed to have some understanding, like professionals, and many people who are supposed to be your support system, like friends and family–do not want to know. Which is understandable. There is enough pain in life; why go reaching for someone else’s pain? There is enough horror; why put yourself in someone else’s nightmare? Human beings–hell, probably all creatures–want to feel good, and we want those around us to feel good. Because we’re a social species, we feel guilty when those around us don’t feel good. We think we’ve done something. We think it’s our fault. It’s uncomfortable, and we want to make it better. And when we can’t, or the people we are trying to comfort don’t respond in the way we want them to, we get mad. At them. And we stop listening.

This is not helpful.

It’s also not helpful to keep assuming you know know what you’re talking about. I think probably a lot of people will find this a harsh statement; after all, we like to think we know what we know. I’d like to point out, though, that quite a few spiritual systems hold that the first step to wisdom is acknowledging your own ignorance. Keeping an  open and receptive mind. Practicing non-judgment.

When people assume they understand what a person suffering from depression is going through, it allows them to perpetuate a whole lot of unhelpful behaviors that only add to the problem. Because they have no measuring stick other than their own experience, they can honestly believe and purport that the pain of a person who wakes up every morning wondering if s/he’s going to survive the day is on the same level as their own that week after the bad break-up with the boyfriend or girlfriend. And this is a bad example, because for a person with chronic depression that bad break-up could be the thing that initiates the spiral. For people without chronic depression, however, it’s a glitch. It’s something you get over and move on. And please forgive me if I seem to be invalidating your grief, here. But it’s true.

The thing is, people with severe chronic depression cannot move on. They cannot choose to. It’s beyond our control. It’s like being on a ride at Disneyland: once you get in the little car, you’re stuck going wherever that car takes you until it stops. Except we did not choose to be on this ride. Most of us were born here.

This is why people’s suggestions about how to relate to depression often strike those of us who suffer it as sententious bullshit. Praying is not going to get me off this ride. Neither is meditation, or drinking wheat grass juice. I cannot change my mind in the middle of the roller coaster track, before the plunge. No one will let me off. Praying, meditation, diet, exercise, therapy, all your suggestions may be useful tools. They may help a person keep breathing until the ride is over, for the time. But they do not eradicate the brain chemistry that makes one prone to depression in the first place.

It’s not a funk. It’s not a phase. It’s not something a person chooses or can control. It isn’t. As long as a person continues to believe that, s/he is perpetuating the difficulty of living with the nightmare.

This is why I believe we need another word. A person who wakes up feeling a bit off and says to him- or herself, “I’m a little depressed today” is reinforcing the notion that depression is a singular thing, and that they know it. And that allows them to continue devaluing the experience of those for whom it isn’t just today, or a little bit, but is a constant struggle. It allows them to continue not to listen.

And to continue to miss the point that the original post was trying to make in the first place.

If you want to read more about the experience of clinical depression, you could do worse than to go here and here.

6 thoughts on “Another Word for Depression, Redux

  1. Language and how we use it is definitely something people have to reevaluate . I agree with many of the points you wrote, on that as well as how people understand mental health issues. Tips can be helpful but they won’t solve anything, that’s for certain.
    I like how you talked about how people should recognize their own ignorance. Personally, it’s because of my own ignorance that I desire to read articles such as this. I want to hear about people’s stories because while I may never know, I want to truly understand and educate myself as much as I can.
    Ignorance about mental health is such a large thing. Trying to change this is going to take several steps-language use, becoming open minded, and actually listening are just a few to start with.

  2. Dear,,

    Hi.. please introduce myself,,I am Asian,24 years old. I am unemployed. I have been fired from the job I was in twice. I can hardly find any other job bcs of my bad working experience on my cv.
    Since then, I realized that I am a slow learner. I was fired bcs I did mistakes for so many times and didn’t understand the instructions properly.

    Well, I have big problem with learning new thing. I used to be a very hardworker but still there always be some flaws on my work. My supervisor always mad at me like, “I’ve said it so many times!”. They did right thing. I didnt blame my previous supervisors who fired me. All I am blaming is my ability of learning and understanding.

    Because of this,I know my weakness well. This leads me to have a terrible feeling when it comes to talk to someone, I’m always getting nervous and panic when I have to explain something. That’s one of the reason why I got fired. I have bad communication skill. Why, because I am afraid if I’m doing wrong.

    Ever since the last day of my working, I haven’t applied for any job yet. I have traumatic feeling about getting fired. My mom always scold me and asking why I’m not looking for another Job. In fact, I never told this to anyone before include, (especially) my parents. I told them that my contract was terminated because I had to handle another job outside my Job desc. I didn’t tell them the honest reason.

    I can’t even share this to my bestfriends bcs they are the people I am envy with. They are the people I wish I could be. They are now having good position in their company with good salary. I feel so much intimidated when we go out for cinema or just hanging out,, they’re all proudly spending their self-earn money and sharing their working experience. Meanwhile, I am still using my parent’s money,, and the leftover money from my last salary.Things are getting harder for me when they ask what my daily activities are. In fact Im just doing nothing at home.

    I keep telling lies to everyone. I am really afraid to tell the truth and to be judged. Having myself as a slow learner has already become the most hurtful thing I have to face.

    Now I am fighting so much againts my own anxiety and low self esteem. I am so afraid what if I never get a proper job.
    I am really expecting for you to do me a favor about what to do? What am I supposed to do ?
    I am so much thankful for your help..

    Best Regards

    1. I’d suggest trying to find a counselor with experience with learning disabilities. A counselor might be able to find ways to improve your learning skills, and also teach you techniques and different styles of thinking that can help alleviate your anxiety. You’re going to have to tell people the truth eventually, but I’m not sure it would be wise until you have some other kind of support system in place. A counselor can help you find that.

      Also, your supervisor sounds like an asshole. I have some experience of people pointing out flaws instead of noticing what I’ve done right, and it’s usually more about them than it is about me. It might be that you’re being unfairly judged and expected to understand things that are not being communicated effectively. I know it’s difficult when a work situation is involved, but try not to blame yourself too much. Self blame just leads to an unending cycle where you get more and more anxious and afraid to function because of possible mistakes. Take a couple deep breaths and remind yourself of what you have accomplished and what you can do. It won’t make the bad stuff go away, but even breathing puts more oxygen in your system and helps you relax and see things from a different perspective.

      Good luck.

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