(TW for depression, mental illness, suicide.)
The other night, I sat at my computer, writing out a post on Facebook.
That post never went anywhere. I deleted it before I’d even finished writing it, letting the backspace button do my talking for me.
The post was all about how lousy I’d been feeling that week. About how I hadn’t talked about it, because I didn’t want to deal with an onslaught of sad emoticons and platitudes that would have done nothing but make me feel guilt over making others feel bad. About how I felt like I had to say something to keep up appearances, because social pressure is immense and social media can make or break job situations, but that same drive to say something also made me feel resentful over having to say anything when I couldn’t be honest. About how useless and impotent I felt in the face of days of alternating apathy and tears.
People talk a lot about how, when someone tries to or succeeds in harming themselves, nobody ever say it coming. “He never talked about wanting to do that.” “She never said she was feeling so terrible.” “We had no idea.”
You should be listening for the silence.
Not that this is some new phenomenon, but in the age of social media, when people update everybody about things both mundane and important, it’s easier than ever to assume that if somebody isn’t saying something, it’s because they have nothing to say. Or simply that they’re too busy, or too distracted by a cell-phone game, or some other mundanity that keeps one from updating the world on what they ate for breakfast.
For people battling depression, it’s more accurate to say that when we don’t talk, that’s when we have the most to say.
The signs seems obvious when you have them spelled out, dispassionately and from a distance. Someone says they’ve been going through some issues. They post online less and less, or more sporadically. What they do post has nothing to do with what they’re dealing with. Then comes that horrific news that this person has taken their own life. And your first thought is, “They never said anything.”
It’s not just that they didn’t say anything. It’s also that you didn’t notice when they started saying less. You didn’t see when they stopped talking.
Everyone struggling with mental illness has been through the song-and-dance at least once. People not knowing what to say. People trying to lighten the mood. People feeling awkward, upset, uncomfortable. We have our own disordered brains feeding us negativity after negativity, telling us that no, nobody does want to hear what’s going on with us, nobody does want to listen to how crappy we feel. And it’s not that same dispassionate voice that makes everything seem obvious. It’s not saying that nobody actively wants to hear it but they will because they love you. No, that voice is saying that everybody would rather turn their heads from you when you speak because you and your struggles are uncomfortable to deal with, and they don’t understand, and they don’t want to try, and you’re just burdening them by reaching out and trying to express yourself.
People with depression — and other mental illnesses — self-censor. We already feel like burdens, and we don’t want to make it worse for those around us. So we keep our words behind our teeth so that only one person has to be upset instead of everybody. We deliberately don’t say things because we suspect — and in some cases we flat-out know — that other people don’t want to hear them.
That’s exactly what I did the other night. I typed so much about how I felt, to get it off my chest. And then I thought about the reactions I’d get, and that I didn’t want to get, so I toned it down. Said less. Was more vague. Then thought about all the hypothetical complaints about vaguebooking. So I erased more, said less yet again. Until I realised that I could say nothing at all.
Which is exactly what I did.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve written down what I feel, put it on social media so that friends and family can stay informed, and what I get back is a slew of advice. Turn that frown upside down. Try doing things this way. Or that way. Or maybe look into this treatment? Or how about doing this thing my cousin’s friend’s brother-in-law tried?
This is a huge reason I self-censor. Advice like this? It’s never helpful. Often what I want is a place to say what I’m feeling and to have someone see it and know it, and that’s all I need. That’s it. I need to vent. I need to get things off my chest and know that someone heard me. It does me no good to just write it all down in a private book, never to be seen by anyone but myself. I don’t want to write to myself. I already know what I feel. I want someone else to know it.
And because people want to be helpful without knowing how to help, they try their best to help. Doing something, even a bad something, must seem better than doing, because doing nothing is what people do when they don’t care, yes?
But knowing there’s a high chance of bad or unwanted advice makes me have one of two reactions. 1) I pre-emptively tell people to not give me advice, and then instantly feel like I’m the bad guy for being belligerent and uncooperative and resistant to help. 2) I say nothing. When I can’t deal with unwanted advice or feeling guilty about not wanting advice, all I can think to do is to just stay quiet.
I’m not alone in doing this.
We come up with lies because lies are more palatable. We tell half-truths to avoid hurting others. We say nothing because we don’t want to be more of a burden than we’re already sure we’re being. And I think at the same time, we wonder why people don’t see what we’re doing. We wonder whether we’re that good at hiding what we really feel, or whether people are that eager to believe the convenient falsehood.
We’re very used to doubt. And circular thinking.
It’s difficult, figuring out when it’s appropriate to say something. Or when to say something even if it’s inappropriate, because keeping it in and letting it fester will be worse. Even if everyone around us was truly willing and even eager to hear our troubles, we’d still have that sour little voice in the back of our minds, telling us that they’re lying, that they’re humouring us and saying they’ll listen because that’s what social convention says good people do. We get caught in that cycle that tells us we’re the problem, over and over, and we can’t properly interpret the validity of signs saying otherwise. We’re afraid, all the time, that we’re wrong wrong wrong. About everything.
And it’s exhausting.
Which is another reason we sometimes decide it’s better to say nothing at all. It’s exhausting just being. How much harder would talking be? Talking means doing something, having people ask questions that we need to answer. If someone asks if we’re okay, and we say anything other than, “Yes,” that will lead to awkward and tiring conversations about what’s wrong, and by damn, just existing is hard enough. You mean you want me to describe it, too?
We are our own worst enemy.
And believe me, we know it.
The problem has so many layers, like the world’s most horrific lasagna. Or an origami piece of pain, folded over and over so many times that deconstructing it turns into an incomprehensible mess. We hurt to be ignored, and yet do our best to slip under the radar. Our screams for help are internal, because making them external risks inconveniencing others. We hope that someone will let us lay ourselves bare while simultaneously dreading it.
We become masters at saying little. At holding up that thin veneer of normalcy. It’s our double-edged sword; the same thing that protects us hurts us. I wish I could say that writing this piece, confronting it openly and honestly, means that something has changed in my disordered brain, but in truth, it hasn’t. I will still continue to self-censor, to hide what I’m really thinking and feeling, and it will be for every contradictory reason I’ve given here. It quickly becomes habit, as easy as breathing, only each breath hurts, stabbing deep like blizzard winds. In moments of pain we react reflexively.
A few years ago, when I was in group therapy, I noticed something about my behaviour. The sessions where I was the most quiet were the sessions during which I had the most to say. I would sit there, quiet, waiting politely for everyone else to finish talking, before I would even venture to open my mouth and let words come out. Fortunately the therapist noticed this too, and would lead me along in getting out what was on my mind. What on the surface, to an outsider, probably just seemed like a day where things were fine and I had nothing worth talking about, was actually a day when I was swirling inside with anxiety because the week had been more difficult than usual. This is how it goes. Typically the quieter we are, the worse off we are.
And I think most people who have never struggled with this sort of thing don’t get that. Not really. Because for them, silence is just what it seems on the surface: there’s nothing to say. The day was fine, nothing noteworthy happened, no storms on the horizon. And because many of us have that peculiar blind spot that makes us think our experiences are representative of everyone’s experience, it’s natural to assume that it means the same for everyone else.
We, the depressed, the anxious, the ill, we know otherwise. We already know we’re different. That we don’t think like other people. We know our minds don’t work like that. At least, we do once we’ve confronted the idea that there’s a problem. (How long did we spend thinking that everything thought and felt like we do, and that we were just weak for not being able to handle it as well as others?)
I’ve survived another day. I will probably survive tomorrow, too. I will be in pain, and I will be troubled, and I probably won’t talk about why or how. That much is on me. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that means I have nothing to say. Don’t think that means everything is fine. All it means is that I’m not talking about what’s wrong. And there are a dozen and one reasons for that, some that come from outside, and many more than come from within. Depression doesn’t announce its presence with a bang; it creeps in like rot and eats away at you until you’re hollow, fragile and crumbling. 90% of the problem can’t be seen at a glance.
Talking helps. But communication being a two-way street, talking can really only be done when both parties know what they’re in for. For someone struggling with depression and the toxic habits it fosters, it involves shedding layer after layer of silent protection, deliberately making yourself vulnerable, risking the pain that comes with lancing the wound. Sometimes we’re not ready to do that. Sometimes it’s not that we’re not in enough pain to do it, but we’re so tangled up inside that we can’t see the benefit.
For the people who want to help, you need to be aware that we’re not a problem for you to fix. Our experiences are going to hurt you, and at the very least they’re going to make you uncomfortable. You’re probably going to be confronted with thought patterns that may make no sense to you, that seem contradictory, and definitely harmful. You need to know that what’s worth more than you saying, “That makes no sense,” is you saying, “I’m here to listen.” And to mean it. And do it. Even when it’s painful. If we’re opening up to you, it means we want to trust you to help us in ways that we need, not just ways that you want.
Because the truth of it all is that as much as we have that little voice in our heads telling us that we’re bad people and that we don’t deserve happiness and that nobody understands and that the best thing we can do is shut up and stop bothering everyone, what hurts worst of all is having people demonstrate, time and again, that the little voice is right.