Not long ago, I had a conversation with someone who I hadn’t known very well or for very long. There are certain “normals” when it comes to small talk with new acquaintances. The first “normal” is that you stick to easy topics like the weather. The second “normal” is the exchange of vocation. “So, what do you do?” is a normal question in most social circumstances. I’m sure there are others that my foggy brain is unable to recall this morning. The bottom line is, stick to surface stuff, don’t let others in until one is absolutely positive they can be trusted (and I would argue that the majority will not prove trustworthy), and pretend that daily life is a wonderful experience in your world.
I used to be able to do this. I was once a person who could make small talk about the current weather or a popular television program. I could talk to others about my job. I could confidently answer that I was a teacher, or I homeschooled my four kids, or I worked for a data company that scored standardized test responses from all grade levels from all over the country.
My conversation didn’t follow this typical pattern, though. This person knew just enough to know that something in my life was causing me to struggle with daily existence, and she asked me about it. I felt the familiar tension of debate on whether to be completely honest, partially honest, or tell an outright lie. I chose the partially honest route. I told her I had MS and that there are still some unknowns that doctors are trying to figure out. Her response was a genuine (I think at least) sympathy for the fact that I live with this disease.
So why would I write about that. It isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it sounds like a good experience overall. And, I would say it was. I believe that to be the case because I went with the partial truth. You see, the whole truth seems to scare people.
If I tell someone I have MS, I usually get a soft response of some sort. Sometimes it’s a sad look and a soft, “Ooh.” Sometimes it’s a gentle, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes it leads to a conversation about symptoms, treatments, diet, etc. The whole truth, though, is I don’t JUST have MS. The beast of MS is miserable for sure. Often it beats me up to the point where I’ve used up all my reserves of strength and I retreat to sleep to escape its relentless assault. The thing with MS, though–I usually recover. Not always to the point that I was at before the attack, but recover none the less.
The other beast I fight, though, is much stronger than MS.
That beast’s name is depression–and if you’ve read much of what I have written on this blog, you know that I don’t hide that fact in my writings. I could. I choose not to do so.
I’ve noticed something about these two beasts over the last year.
It is much easier, the response elicited is much warmer and gentler, and people are much more accepting when I tell them I have MS. I imagine if I had cancer or back problems or pretty much any other physical ailment the response would be the same. But, if I am brave enough to tell someone that I suffer from depression, usually I get an awkward silence. The majority of people out there don’t mind if I tell them I have been dizzy for the past two days. They listen with caring ears if I say that I was unable to do something because the fatigue was so overpowering that it forced me to rest for an entire day. But, if I am honest, if I say, “I’m really not okay. I kind of don’t want to live this life anymore,” the response is much different. Some quickly brush it off, thinking that maybe I am joking. Some quickly change the subject. Some offer a half-hearted, “I’m sorry,” and then leave to find some normal person to talk to.
There’s a song on Christian radio right now that starts with the line,
“It’s okay to not be okay, This is a safe place.”
In all honesty, I don’t believe that when depression is the reason for not being okay, that there is ever a safe place to be honest about it. SO many times I have wanted to say something to someone about how I am really feeling, but I don’t. I write it in a journal. I write it to a certain extent on this blog. I even write it to a certain extent on social media. But to say it out loud? To be completely honest? I don’t go there with audible words. Of course, that just makes those words louder in my own head. They scream at my mind, needing to be let out, but I can’t bring myself to do that. If the mention of depression causes an awkward silence, I can’t imagine what true honesty would bring. It’s so frustrating because, again, if I told someone I was diagnosed with cancer, there would be no awkward silence.
Depression is as much a beast as MS, lupus, even cancer. Yes, it can kill a person. The mind suffering from depression isn’t often rational. The loneliness depression brings is hell. The sadness feels like it is wrapping itself around my throat and squeezing tighter and tighter. The fatigue is debilitating. There is an overall melancholy that seems to hang over me at all times. Sometimes I swear I can see it and touch it, yet I cannot part it enough to see beyond it. It envelopes me completely and darkens the world I live in. But who wants to hear this kind of truth?
There has been a campaign in the last decade to take the stigma out of depression. IN my experience, I don’t think it has worked. Suicide rates are at an all time high, especially among young people. Doctors throw prescriptions for anti depressants at people and tell them they will be fine. Schools, if they are fortunate, have one school psychologist or a few counselors who might be able to take the time to sit down and really listen to the heart of a kid suffering under the weight of depression. My school did not. Depression has been my companion for more years of my life than adulthood has. I still find it hard to be completely honest about what is going on inside my head. I’ve experienced the awkward silence, the quick changing of the subject, even the walking away to never be seen again. Among my closest friendships, I am guarded as to how I am really feeling. Some have been around me long enough that my depression, to them, is just part of me and nothing to be concerned about. They check out when I try to talk to them. I understand their behavior–I really do. I wish I wasn’t like this. I hate the me I am–and living with someone you hate is a horrible way to live. Regardless, I can only hope that, as time goes on, the stigma of having depression (or any other emotional illness) decreases or completely disappears. I would encourage you, if you can, to think about how you would respond if a friend or acquaintance told you that they were diagnosed with depression. Would you be the kind of person who would feel the need to quickly exit the conversation? Or could you formulate a response that shows you care just as if that person had told you she was diagnosed with cancer?
As for me, I will stay guarded around people for now, and try to relieve the pressure of the beast using the only method that has ever made the slightest of difference–words.