I’m going to talk today about two things that I know I’ve done when depressed that people who haven’t experienced depression often don’t understand. They’re going to be a bit hard to read (you might want to skip this one, Mum), but I think it helps to hear why people do things when they’re depressed, and what drives them to do it.
First, people avoidance. See how that guy in the video up there pretended like he wasn’t home? That’s actually pretty much my daily reaction to other humans. I think it’s probably a good example of how to tell if your extroverted friend is depressed.
This is what friend avoidance looks like in my world. I’m an extrovert at work and an introvert at home, by the way.
“Hey Ker! How about we do something?”
“Yeah, that sounds great.”
“Awesome! Let’s go to dinner!”
Day of event… “Hey Friend! I’m really sorry, but I can’t make it today. Work is crazy/my dad is sick/the weather is wacky/etc.”
Yeah, I lie. There are very few people who get the truth out of me: the mere thought of interacting with someone is so overwhelming that it makes me physically queasy. The mere thought of having to be entertaining hurts deep in my bones. The concept of having to put matching clothes on, of having to shower, is completely too much to handle.
And because those aren’t socially acceptable excuses, I lie. Also, because I don’t want to talk about it. If I tell you I’m depressed, you’re going to want to try and help me and I can’t think about talking about it to anyone who isn’t going to give me drugs or tell me something meaningful that might help me. I love you, but you are not going to tell me anything meaningful that might help me. In fact, you’re likely to inadvertently hurt me. And let’s face it, being depressed is boring. You can’t point a finger at it and say this is why I hurt. It hurts and there’s no reason and there’s really nothing else to say about it. You try to figure it out forever and you can’t. And that’s what makes it boring.
So yeah, I lie. I lie to prevent both of us from getting hurt. You get a very reasonable excuse and the knowledge that I actually did want to spend time with you (or I wouldn’t have booked the original date). Me, I get an out.
Luckily for me, most of my friends have kids and they’re constantly cancelling on me, so it’s mostly okay, But I worry about the impact of this behaviour on my relationships because it is a shitty thing to do. And because when I make that date, I truly believe that maybe I’ll feel better that day. Maybe I’ll have the energy to get energy from you.
Here’s the other thing I’m going to discuss: cutting. I’m going to tell you a story about a day I had when I was 21. I’d been out of the psychiatric wing of the hospital for about five or six weeks. I’d been admitted into an intensive outpatient clinic at a hospital in Toronto where I went to see a pscyhologist three times a week, and a team of people worked out the medications that I needed to take to be a functioning member of society.
I had all the support in the world, including amazing parents who didn’t understand what was happening with their daughter. I was one of the lucky ones – I was in the system. I had therapy and drugs and support at home.
But it wasn’t enough. I remember lying in bed one afternoon. I’d missed an appointment with my psychologist because I couldn’t get out of bed. I lay there taking short, shallow breaths because the weight on my chest wouldn’t let me clear my lungs. I lay there with tears leaking out of my eyes, listening to CBC radio. (There’s a joke in there, somewhere.)
I called my mother and asked her to come home, because I was pretty sure that if she didn’t, I’d try to kill myself. But I couldn’t say that, so I just asked her to come home. She’s amazing and she did, no doubt cancelling on a number of clients and pissing off her boss. She came home and didn’t even drop her bag at the door. She just came downstairs and asked me what was wrong. And I couldn’t say anything. All I did was cry.
Mum was frustrated, I could tell. She wanted to fix me, and I couldn’t show her how. There was no boo boo to kiss, there was nothing she could distract me with. She could just sit there and that’s not very satisfying. Her being there prevented me from dying, but I couldn’t tell her that, because that would get me back to the hospital and anyone who’s been in a psychiatric hospital knows that you’d really rather be at home. Instead she just asked me what she could do, and I said nothing. Literally. I didn’t say a word.
That weight on my chest didn’t go away. The pain in my heart didn’t go away. I wanted so badly to be able to say “here! Here’s where it hurts! take it out! make it go away”, but I couldn’t, because you can’t really take out your heart.
That night, after my parents went to bed, I broke a bottle and used the glass to cut myself. Not a slashing cut, more like a repeated rubbing of the broken glass over my skin until I rubbed through enough layers to bleed. I watched the blood well up in little dots and thought to myself, okay. Now I can see where it hurts.
I went to the bathroom, washed the cut, put a bandage over it, and went to bed. I kept pressing the cut when that gaping sucking void opened in my chest again, because it was a true, *real* physical pain.
I wish I could say that was the only time I cut myself, but it wasn’t. I got to the point where I could drag it out for almost an hour before I started to bleed. It calmed the raging voices in my head telling me that depression wasn’t real, that I needed to suck it up, that I should just be better. It made talking to my psychologist easier, because she kept asking me what the hurt was and I could mentally point to a cutting site, even when I was totally mute, incapable of pulling out the words I needed to convey the pain in my soul.
I got better, and after that summer I never cut myself again. I went back to university and graduated with honours, albeit a year later than planned. I got a master’s degree. I moved to another country and worked a crazy cool job and then moved home and got a normal job. I did another master’s degree. I bought a house. I became and executive. I had three more significant mental health crises. And I’m still alive.
When you see somebody with raised straight rows of scars on their arms or legs, don’t look away. That person is a survivor. That person fought and beat down their demons and lived.
Your friend, the one who’s depressed? They’re doing what they can to survive. You don’t need to approve of what they’re doing. You just need to accept it, and hug that person when they let you, and applaud them when they show up. Hug and applaud them if they’ve showered and are wearing matching clothes. Because they are surviving, and you are a part of that effort.
You’re a good friend.