Stuff I wish I’d known about depression #2

Other People’s Perspectives

One of the cruellest tricks of depression is how it robs you of perspective.  The world turns into a dystopia full of brash sights and sounds, populated by people who (despite their coldness and self-interest) are far superior to you.  That’s how it seems anyway.  Your feelings of worthlessness become so all-engrossing that it’s easy to forget that people aren’t all against you.  In the course of a mental illness, it’s usual to come up against a lot of unhelpful attitudes: some of these are from strangers, employers, doctors, etc and are the result of ignorance; others are from people close to you and are likely to go on affecting you long after the memory of the rude doctor dries up. 

It’s a horrible (and very common) moment when you realise a friend you’ve had for years suddenly won’t pick up the phone and will cross the street to avoid you.  This is often a matter of prejudice on their part, which I want to talk about in another blog post later.  But it can also be the extreme awkwardness that illness creates.

People may avoid you not because you make them sad, but because they’re worried they will have nothing to say.

I used to think that people didn’t ask me about my problems because they didn’t care about them, or were embarrassed by my pathetic mewling.  One day I had a violent catatonic fit in front of two friends – when I tried to explain it, they waved away my explanations, and the next time we met, they didn’t ask how I was.  I was hurt and confronted one of them, and what he told me has actually given me comfort since. 

He said that people (particularly men) think they are easing a situation for you by pretending nothing’s wrong.  That’s not to say that they don’t think about your situation or that they disbelieve it, but if they wouldn’t want to talk about their problems, they assume you feel safer not talking about yours.

For the most part, it is better not to make a confidante out of someone like this.  They can be wonderful friends and they’ll most likely be the ones to have fun with when you need to take your mind off things, but don’t force them to talk about your issues if they aren’t immediately affected and if you have someone else to talk to.  This isn’t a reflection on you, it’s just how some people are.

The most valuable phrase I’ve ever learned is “I don’t need to explain myself to you.”  Or, if you’re feeling brave, “Your opinion doesn’t affect me.”  Trust me, they work.

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Recently I was reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography, in which he describes looking over the desk at the record label at a man whose clean cut commercialism wounded his very soul, and deciding, out of pure contrariness, to invent his entire biography.  Fifty years later, the Bob Dylan born into sunburnt tobacco-chewing poverty, who cowboy walked out of the womb in a plaid shirt and sunglasses, still endures over the university-educated Robert Zimmerman.  So, in view of the fact that this blog is related to my writing career, I should be careful what I say.  There is still a tendency to write one’s soul out on the internet, as if it is a fantasy realm peopled by mysterious comment-generating ghosts, rather than give it the honesty and gravitas that you would a real-life conversation. 

I digress.  I’m trying to introduce myself, so that my blog makes sense.  I suppose as much as is self-evident from the title is that I am a student and writer, with an interest in design, high fashion and theatre.  I am also recovering from a year of torturously ill health, while coming to terms with the fact that I am disabled for the long-haul; luckily I live in the age of the internet, so there are a multitude of wonderful free articles floating around about disability advocacy and other things I’m interested in, like cultural norms, feminism and intersectionality.  The name of this blog comes from my hero, Lord Byron.  Early celebrity, mentally and physically disabled, handsome, lustful, and eccentrically dressed, he created the prototype for that strange cultural phenomenon, the tortured artist.

Hopefully I will be using this page to write all the stuff that’s clogging up my head and can’t be written anywhere else – stuff that will mostly be about writing, disability and depression.

Welcome to How Byronic!

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Stuff I wish I’d Known About Depression #1

The art of feeling sorry for yourself

An unusual bit of advice here.  When living with depression, you might well be surrounded by family and professionals and self-help books telling you to get off your depressive backside and volunteer at a homeless shelter to see people with real problems to put yours in perspective.  Modern western society tends towards rugged individualism, the idea of personal responsibility and accountability.  Rugged individualism says that you control where you are in life as well as where you’re going: if you work hard you will reap the benefits; if you slack off then don’t expect someone else to come and dig you out.  The problem with that is that it doesn’t make room for bad luck, which is one of the main features of life.  Awful things happen that we can’t control: loved ones die, crimes are committed, houses burn down, cars crash and there is no way to completely insure yourself against it.  For some people, that’s too frightening to admit.  That’s why our society often blames people for their illnesses.  If they can attribute depression to drink, laziness, self-centredness, etc, they can put their own vulnerability from their minds.

We are constantly told that a healthy lifestyle and a busy mind are the best protection against the blues.  But anyone who has fallen foul of major depression knows that all the exercise and sunlight in the world won’t make it better.

The reality is that the factors affecting mood are incredibly complex.  Researchers are always finding new things that may contribute to the onset of depression, and if I try to say what the theory is this week, it will just be out of date by the time you’re reading.  The broad categories thought to influence depression are: family background, environment, age, gender, biology, neurology, weather, financial status, recent events, childhood events, lifestyle and social life.  Some people become depressed when a loved one dies, some people wake up one morning and suddenly can’t face the world.

Depression is among the worst things that could happen to anyone.  It has the same emotional effect as a great tragedy in your life, but it’s much harder to explain and to understand. 

For a moment, take out the word “depression” which is over-used and diluted and comes with a great many pre-conceptions.  Imagine for a moment that you could describe it completely afresh, as if there was no word for it.  A conversation might go more like this.

Friend:  What’s wrong?

You:  I’m sad.  All the time.  Literally all the time.

Friend:  Jeez!  Why is that?

You:  Loads of reasons, you can’t really pin it down.  It’s the pain of having just lost someone, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

Friend:  Sounds awful.  Why don’t you go on holiday?

You:  I will still be sad.

Friend:  Do a sponsored run?

You:  Too sad.  It’s that really sharp sadness that stops you concentrating on anything else.

Friend:  Online dating?

You:  Still sad.

Friend:  So… are you going to be sad forever?

You:  I just don’t know.

When you have depression, you have an illness that seems to invalidate everything in your life – it is no respecter of money, age, relationships or physical health, things that would otherwise make you content.  Depression is a brutal illness and it has happened to you. 

Berating yourself for your own misfortune is a disastrous route to take.  Depression feeds off itself voraciously and guilt will only fuel the cycle.  Like this:

“I feel awful.”                 

“Why do I feel awful when there are so many starving children in Africa?  Grow up!”

“I feel guilty for feeling awful”

“My problems are minute, I’m just a selfish idiot, I’m a waste of space”

“I feel awful(er)”

When you feel sorry for yourself, you at least short-circuit the guilt by acknowledging that you are worth empathy rather than accusation.

To be blunt: depression kills people.  It comes like cancer, with a complex cause that you may or may not have any control over, and it destroys lives in the same way.  Even those who recover fully can be left with the emotional, physical and financial results for years to come.  It can take away your job, friends, physical health, self-worth and reason for living.

You are worth feeling sorry for.

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