Because I, like many others, suffer from mental health conditions (I suffer from depression and anxiety), it really matters to me how we talk about mental health. I use, but am trying not to use, words like mad, insane, nuts, crazy, bonkers, depressed, OCD etc. unthinkingly. This thread on Twitter reminded me this evening how language matters in checking and changing our perception. Mental illness still isn’t talked about, understood or even acknowledged enough. I have relatives in Malaysia who don’t believe depression exists, seeing as a modern day feeling that can be dealt with with fresh air, exercise, a positive outlook. I don’t blame them – shame and stigma surround mental health and invisible illnesses e.g. dementia (called the old age sickness and considered, in some cultures, untreatable (or rather, pointless or too scary to treat ). I grew up imbibing Malaysian propaganda re. being a productive member of society. Being laid low with sad feelings kinda sounds like laziness or unwillingness. An unproductive person is one of lesser value; is less of a person.
From experience, I have had people dismiss my experience of depression or anxiety in various ways:
– not accepting that it’s chemical imbalances and but blaming my uncertain job (being an actor and a writer)
– searching for a specific occurence for what’s causing my sadness (eg heartbreak, the end of a project, falling out with a friend)
– Putting it down to me being a “sensitive person”.
Of course I experience non-chemical induced sadness just as people who don’t suffer from depression do but I know when this is. I know when I’m in a depression and when I am “just” sad. I am also aware of using illness as a get-out-of-jail card or an excuse for bad behaviour and how this can be annoying. Listen, I recently spoke to other folk with mental illnesses and we sometimes get struck by worry – is it our illness or are we horrible assholes? Anyone with an illness isn’t suddenly deserving of uncritical treatment. Just be aware of the factors flying around. It’s not easy. No one who has depression WANTS to feel shitty, though I do know that some people wrap sadness around them like a security blanket for a whole host of reasons. This is not the same as suffering from depression. How can we tell? How do we know? I don’t know but ask the questions. Read, talk, discuss, open your eyes, think, be aware.
Why be aware? Well, 1 in 4 people in England “will experience a mental health problem in any given year” – statistics available online here. That means quite a few people you know. Take them on board or ignore an important part of their lives.
How can you help? Find out more.
What’s helpful to me? If I am in a depressive period (How can you tell? Ask. I haven’t had a severe spell for some years but I’m mildly depressed now and have had a few intensely hopeless days in the last 8 months) it’s helpful if you do not negate my experience. Listen to me if I am communicating with you. (Especially if you’re a “middle class white man”, heteronormative, laden with privilege, or if you STILL suspect that I’m sad because of my choice of job and lifestyle.) It doesn’t tend to help if you ask me why I’m sad or to ask me to share. Chemicals. I do not want to have to prove my depression credentials to the world. “She doesn’t seem sad enough?” Andrew Solomon’s definition resonates: “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” Allie Brosh’s illustrated blog post on depression explains simply how she was not too bad at making her face and body mimic “normal behaviour”, up to a point, not displaying what you may think of as signs. Depressed people sometimes go out and seem fully functioning. It depends on their depression and where they’re at. I have had, not anytime recently, days when I haven’t been able to get off the floor. I was unable to bring myself to leave my flat. Most days, I count steps calmly when I’m walking up or down an escalator. More days than I like, I have low level panic attacks. I deal with it.
“According to social media, Vera doesn’t seem to be depressed.” Yeah, well, we all know how social media tells the whole truth, right? Also, it’s kinda my job to be busy doing stuff a lot of the time. I enjoy performing and making, and being out there with friends, but this is balanced out with plenty of quiet time to regroup.
If you really want to know how I am, really ask and be prepared to listen. I can decide if I want to answer and how. Give me us both these options. And YES, I know it might feel super awkward. I am REALLY socially awkward and a total culprit when it comes to becoming MORE awkward around illness, death, misfortune etc. I worry about not saying the right thing or about asking stupid or offensive questions. I find it helps to say, “I don’t know what to say/This might be a dumb question.” I don’t have all the answers.
It’s (probably) not you.
Please try not to take it personally if I don’t attend your parties. I sometimes attend parties and sometimes I really don’t do well in crowds or when there are too many factors which might cause my anxiety to flare up. Sometimes a coffee might seem too awful to contemplate – I don’t want to be asked what I’m up to or how I’m doing for the 100th time. It doesn’t mean I don’t value you, your friendship, your invitation. It means a lot to me to be remembered and invited to things. (Equally, I may just not like you or your friends. If you’re fussed enough, you could ask. I know it’s tricksy.) Sometimes meeting up inspires, reenergises, shifts something in me. Sometimes, from the right person at the right time, hearing the platitudes and age old mindfulness mantras – Be kind to yourself – genuinely helps. Sometimes exercise helps me and sometime it floors me. Sometimes it IS better for me to be in a dark room on a sunny day, other times, I would love it if I had a friend in the neighbourhood who’d come round and take me out for a walk. Activity-based meet ups are helpful eg watch a film, walk somewhere, craft activities. I quite like helping out with mindless repetitive tasks.
I find it helpful when someone asks, how are you today as opposed to how are you doing? What are you up to at the moment, as opposed to, what are you working on?
Try not to say that you’re “depressed” willy nilly. When I’m not actually in a depressive period, I’ll try not to use it either.
Do not make this about you. For example, don’t care/want to help/ask me to share etc. because it makes you feel better/distracts you from your stuff. Obvs, caring about your friends is ok, but you know what I mean. And I can see through this stuff. And then we’re all frustrated.
Do not disappear. Or maybe. You know, it’s good for me to be reminded of who my real friends are, as cheesy or as snidey as that sounds. So yes, there are ones who disappear when I’m not always being useful to them nor a barrel of laughs. Well, their absence is not necessarily a bad thing in the long run. (I’ve been thinking about something I read – work out who’s a friend and who’s a colleague. The latter isn’t perjorative, but seeing relationships for what they are may well save you some emotional anguish and misunderstandings.)
As a side note, mental health conditions aside, if a friend is behaving uncharacteristically, it’s probably more productive to think, “Ooh, something must be up with them, perhaps I’ll check” as opposed to, “What have I done wrong?” or “God, they’re being a dick.”
As I mentioned, I haven’t been seriously depressed for many, many years, but I’m currently in a, hopefully unserious, depression now. I’m pretty much managing it in various ways. Some days despair is the only word that fits and I force myself to think about the cyclical nature of this beast – I’ll come “up” again soon. My strategy isn’t fail safe and yeah, things need working out.
Point is, I remember being very deep in a hole and not being able to help myself. Not being able to think straight or to make my body function “properly”. I don’t remember how I got myself out of it – my memory plays tricks on me this way. But I do remember close friends (thank you, I hope you know who you are) being frustrated with me over the phone. Offering to come round and then sitting with me or taking me out for gentle walks. Checking on practical things like whether I was feeding myself. Harping on at me til I did see a doctor, though I recall hating them, irrationally wondering why they didn’t care enough to carry me there, wanting to be saved.
I read somewhere many years ago that one way of helping someone to keep going/being alive is to create small but definite markers in time to look forward to e.g. I’ll drop by in an hour and I’ll tell you about X. I’ll see you next week. We’ll meet monthly, have brunch and eat eggs. For me, this shapes time and space and anchors perception of myself in the world when everything, inexplicably, starts to feel formless and pointless.
I’m not particularly thrilled to be sharing this personal information about me with the world. It’s kinda like telling the world I have a fungus on my feet when you don’t really need to know, knowing it might affect how you treat me. It might decide whether you’ll work with or hire me. I am concerned about being treated the way people sometimes might treat someone who is identifiably disabled – with kid gloves, condescension, expecting less, including them less. I wonder if, if it comes to a long term partner (I am NOT advocating for heteronormative monogamy nor the institution of marriage here), mine might, at some level, evaluate me: Ah, she’s not going to be a good mother or a life partner – she’s unstable, broken, unreliable. Bad genes! Bad genes! Fuck but don’t marry! I am concerned that I am fulfilling so many stereotypes: “crazy woman”, “emotional actress”.
This disclosure will have repercussions, but it’s important for me to write about it because I’m interested in the positive repercussions. I believe in and have faith in the power of awareness and dialogue. I believe in all of us being stronger, kinder, and more robust for it.
Thank you to everyone out there who’s shared their struggles to do with their body and mental health, sexuality, sex, identity and race, addiction etc. Whatever they are, risking with courage and generosity. You, friends and strangers, have helped me and, I’m sure, countless others.
Andrew Solomon’s TED Talk on depression is beautiful.
Brene Brown TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability. Her talk at the RCA – it’s long but it’s worth it – going deeper into ideas and research to do with vulnerability and shame. The Q&A at the end was particularly interesting to me.
Kristina Wong’s show, Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. On depression and suicide within the Asian American community. Available on DVD, on Amazon or Vimeo. Eye-opener on how stigma causes casualties.
Amazingly fab and highly recommended spin instructor Kaya Cansfield talks about acknowledging and managing her eating disorder.
The lovely @TimGrayburn who, with Bryony Kimmings, made a show about his anxiety and depression, exploring depression in men.