Depression and Self-Censorship

(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.

Facing the Monster: Living With Mental Illness

I’m staring a monster in the face.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this monster. We’re old companions, it and I. It’s one of those sly, shape-changing beasts, sometimes sitting on my shoulder, tiny and whispering things to me so quietly I almost don’t hear them; other times the large black shape that blocks my doorway and stops any thought of escape. It’s tenacious, letting me think I’ve beaten it back, only to surge forth again once I’ve let my guard down. I’ve seen its tricks, I know that voice. It’s FFVI’s Ultros/Orthros, whom you fight and defeat, only to have pop up again later in the game, dogging your footsteps, wearing out its grudge against you.

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“I’m kind of an asshole that way.”

I’m facing my fourth major depressive episode.

I knew this was coming. You can only fight the monster so many times before you learn that it will come back. The only questions are when, and how. There is no if.

It’s a nice narrative to think that people facing mental illness like depression only do it the once. You feel sad and alienated, eventually reaching the point where you feel like dying because dying has got to be less painful and lonely than living, and then someone notices, and helps you, and you recover and move on with your life. A little bit sadder, a little bit wiser. You look back on that time and think, “Boy, am I glad that’s over with.” The narrative gives hope, it tells you that this too will pass, that you just have to keep fighting and someday you’ll be happy and normal again.

If only.

The narrative is supposed to keep you inspired to work toward better days. Unfortunately, it does double-duty, painting mental illness as something like chicken pox: you get it once and then you never get it again. And that it always follows the same pattern of getting sad, then sadder, then saddest, and then you begin the long climb out of the hole.

The narrative doesn’t tell you about all the people who don’t want to hear what happened to you. It doesn’t tell you that the climb out of the hole might take place over the entire rest of your life, because you may backslide every once in a while. It doesn’t tell you that you may be watching over your shoulder every day for signs that the monster might be nearby. The narrative tells you that you get better, and that’s the end of it.

I’m not better.

I may never be better.

I may have reprieves, times that are better than others, times where the monster retreats and lets me get on with things for a while. But by this point, I expect that this fourth time won’t be the final time. I’ll still spend years on the lookout, working every day to dodge the spectre, trying to stay one step ahead of it so that when it does rear its ugly head again, maybe I’ll see it sooner, fight back more quickly, defeat it more easily. Maybe next time won’t be so difficult.

Last time, the monster sent me delusions that people around me were dead and just didn’t know it, that I was the only one who could tell. It sent me phobic attacks that kept me awake at night, sitting in the living room in the dark, staring out the window, watching for zombies until sunrise, because as much as I knew zombies aren’t real, what if I’m wrong, and me watching constantly is the only thing that gives me enough warning to run? It sent me the voices whispering from the bushes, from the shadows, not saying anything I could understand, but letting me know that I was being watched, all the time. It gave me nonphysical pain so unbearable that all I could do to lessen it was the claw skin from myself, because the physical pain was easier to recover from and made the mental pain fade for a little while.

Last time, it nearly cost me my job, when I dared to be honest about what was happening to me. They deactivated my swipe card — twice — before I could go on long-term leave, telling me both times that it was an accident. They told me I wasn’t to talk about my mental health with any employee. They delayed me coming back for two and a half months, resulting in my health benefits running out so that I had no income and yet wasn’t allowed to earn anything until they let me back in the building. They made me get notes from two doctors declaring me fit to re-enter the workplace, something that both of those doctors deemed unnecessary. I was openly mocked when I told them that what they were doing was discrimination.

The first time the monster surfaced? My moods were peaks and valleys, ranging wildly from hour to hour. I can look back at old journal entries from the time and see myself write that I feel like dying, that I’m worthless and horrible and don’t deserve to live, and five hours later I’m writing about how much I love such-and-such movie and I’m having a great time watching it again. From the top of the world down to hell, on a bungie cord, always bouncing. The physical scars of that time have faded over the years, but you can still see them when the light’s right. The pale lines on my wrist. The paler marks on my arm from the time that using a box cutter to see myself bleed seemed like a welcome alternative to anything else in life.

When my parents found out, they were furious. My father’s attempt at helping consisted of telling me that if I tried again, he’d have me locked up. Send me away to a place where they wouldn’t even let me have shoelaces or pencils. He didn’t care if it meant me flunking out of school.

To a child whose only sense of self-worth came from the idea that high achievement in academia could make my parents proud of me, this was crushing.

They took me to a counselor. In the one and only visit we had, the counselor spent more time talking to my parents about me — me in the same room, listening to how my problems really weren’t that serious and that I was just a teenager acting out —  than they talked to me.

The episode went on for years, with me assuming that everything I felt and did was just normal and I had to hide it to avoid inconveniencing everyone, before anyone actually convinced me that there was actually a problem.

The first time I was prescribed medication to treat depression, the side-effects were almost immediate. I couldn’t stay awake. I wanted to sleep all the time, and more than that, I was on the verge of falling asleep almost all the time.

I recall being at work, my head on my desk over my break, struggling to keep my eyes open and failing. My supervisor came to me and said, “You can’t sleep at work.”

“Watch me,” was my reply.

The next time I was prescribed medication — the same medication, I might add — I figured I knew what to expect. I took it at night, before bed, figuring the worst of the side effects would be gone by the time I had to get up.

No such luck. This time, the effect was insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. For days and days I struggled to get a few hours of sleep a night, wanting to cry at how tired I was, knowing that I didn’t have a choice but to keep pushing onward because really, who’s going to give me time off work because the pills that are supposed to help me stop feeling like I want to die won’t let me get enough sleep and I’m exhausted.

I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Even getting help was excruciating. I was on meds, I was supposed to be improving, and here I was trying to figure out how to make it through just one more day, only for entirely different reasons than before.

It was the early 2000s, and as far as I knew, nobody talked about this. My only option was to keep my mouth shut and push through, hoping, as always, that it would get better soon.

I wish that mental illness fit that nice neat narrative, that I could spend a few months feeling miserable and then know that the skies would clear and things would be fine again. But the truth is, I don’t fit the narrative. People don’t fit the narrative, because that narrative always includes everyone being shocked but helpful, only making thoughtless hurtful comments before they know there’s a problem, never reacting badly and never making mistakes. People don’t work that way.

People want that nice story for two reasons, I think. One, because it gives them the very hope that it’s meant to. If you’re depressed, it will get better. If someone you know is depressed, they will get better. And two, because it means that their role in the story ends as soon as the depressive episode ends. No more work to do, everything’s fine again. My friend isn’t depressed anymore, so what could they possibly need to talk about? My child is better now, so I don’t need to do anything else. The narrative doesn’t tell them that it can happen again.

More devastatingly, the narrative doesn’t tell the person with mental illness that it can happen again.

It happens the first time, okay, that’s normal. It happens a second time, oh god, what’s wrong with me, why am I so deficient that the thing that never happens to anyone twice is happening to me twice?

That hope that it ends is a great message to give to people who need to hear that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it also serves to blindside us when comes the time we find ourselves in a tunnel once more.

There’s increased talk about mental illness these days, and how trained professionals are there to help, and that’s great. I love seeing that, because maybe that increased awareness will help stop someone from suffering for years and blaming themselves along the way. But there are far fewer stories from people who face depression multiple times. Generously, I can say that might be because people in need of help might not get it if they don’t think it will actually end. But cynically, I can say that it’s also because people generally just don’t want to to deal with mental illness already, so dealing with it twice? Three times? Nope, I don’t want to hear it. Stick fingers in ears, put on the blinders, and go about your life secure in the knowledge that nobody needs you right now, because if they didn’t you’d know it. It would fit the narrative.

There’s not enough talk, also, about the fact that depression can and often does manifest with a side-order of psychotic symptoms. I have to dig to find people talking about it. Official information told me two years ago that psychotic symptoms like paranoia or delusions are very rare. Now comes a bit more information that it’s actually far more common than previously believed. Plenty of people experience that with mood disorders like depression.

But few people talking about it means that chances are the people struggling with it are going to say nothing about it, thinking themselves far more damaged than they thought, thinking that nobody will believe them, that they’ll be locked up in a place with no shoelaces or pencils because isn’t that just where crazy people go?

I want to believe that someday, I’ll be able to live live without keeping a close watch for signs of the monster’s return, or that heavy inevitability that things have progressed too far to handle on my own. I’d love to think that what I’m facing right now could be cured with a few months of pills and maybe talking it out with someone in an office filled with impressive-sounding textbooks. That I just have to make it out of this one tunnel and then there’ll be no more.

But the reality is, there will probably be another tunnel. And I will always have to keep watch. I will probably always need some help.

My narrative is not the narrative. It’s not the nice neat story we like to tell ourselves about depression, nor is it the story of every person who has experienced depression. It’s painful and lonely and, sadly, it’s not always skewed emotions that are telling you nobody really wants to talk about what’s happening.

I could sit here and unpack all of my problems to you, but that’s not what this post is about. Everyone’s got problems. Plenty of people have some of the same problems I have, and some of them are not contemplating oblivion just to escape them. Depression isn’t about the problems you do or don’t have. It’s not about who has the most pain or the worst situation. That’s another painful part of the narrative that I see a lot. People talking about how so-and-so’s problems weren’t bad enough to warrant suicide, or self-harm, or such a reaction. Those reactions make me want to scream, because anyone saying that has utterly missed the point of the thing they’re reacting to, and also it’s another very loud message to people with depression that nobody understands, and nobody really wants to hear you talk about it.

This isn’t the message we should be sending.

This isn’t the story that should be told.

So as I face my monster for the fourth time, I don’t bother to hope that after this it will be over for good, because I know it probably won’t be. I don’t bother to hope that I will get outpourings of sympathy, because I’ve had so many instances in the past where honesty has been met with awkward silence or discrimination. I don’t bother to pretend that it will be easy to deal with, for me or those around me, because depression is a brutal monster that will kick your ass to the curb and the shockwave will impact those close to you.

That’s not the narrative of hope. That’s the narrative of reality.

But I am still here. I am still alive, and I am still fighting, and I will keep fighting until there’s no more fight left in me. I will weather the storm and I will watch the horizon for another. I will encourage others to fight, because even though the fight is exhausting and may or may not even end, it’s still worth fighting.

I’m not here to make people feel good and tell them it’ll always get better. My story, at this point, isn’t that story. It hasn’t been that story for a long time. I will not always be strong. I will falter, I will fail, and if all I ever accomplish is this post telling people that their hopeful story of mental illness conquered has actually done harm and needs to be send back to the editors for work and expansion, then so be it.

I am not fighting alone.

You are not fighting alone.

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“I’m nothing more than a stupid octopus!”