He: What’s the matter with you?
Nothing was slowly clotting my arteries. Nothing slowly numbing my soul. Caught by nothing, saying nothing, nothingness becomes me. When I am nothing they will say surprised in the way that they are forever surprised, ‘but there was nothing the matter with her.’
– Jeanette Winterson
A few weeks ago I posted something on Facebook, articulating my feelings that ‘R U OK Day’ (the Aussie reskin of World Suicide Prevention Day) is a great initiative but shouldn’t be taken too literally. My point was that simply asking someone whether they’re OK is unlikely to elicit much of a response beyond “Yeah I’m fine”, unless you’re someone they’re really close to. It takes more than that to make a difference – although it doesn’t take a great deal more; just a bit of empathy and persuasion. So I thought I’d kick off this second entry on depression with how to make that difference… A bit of a template, to tweak as you see fit.
– First, propose going for a coffee – or better yet, a beer or wine after work. Make it your shout. Importantly, make it seem like you want a chat about something, or at least that you’re craving a nice cold one after work and would like them to be your company. This is subtly flattering and importantly, it puts them at ease that this isn’t going to be some heavy ‘R U OK’ discussion. Just a brew and a chinwag at the watering hole ’round the corner, head off home in time for tea, no big deal.
– Order drinks, take a seat, take a sip, and chat. Kick off with the footy ladder (no pun intended), the impending restructure, or that Netflix show you know you both watch. Something casual. Then talk about yourself, and if you’ve genuinely got something to get off your chest then by all means run with that. Talking through some problem of your own, no matter how trivial, sets the stage nicely while putting the spotlight firmly on you, letting your company sip away and ease up in the audience section.
– When the moment seems right, gently turn it around. Ask casually but earnestly, “So how are you going anyway?” Mention they seem a bit quiet, not quite themselves lately. Try not to say “you seem depressed” – men in particular aren’t comfortable with such labels or ‘fessing up to emotional issues straight-up. You might need to pussy-foot around a bit first, but if you’ve set the vibe right and the beer’s going down nicely, they should open up soon enough.
– As soon as this happens, listen. The key to all this is LISTEN. For the Black Books fans out there, remember the episode where Bernard goes to the therapist? Throughout all of their sessions she never says a word – he just rants to himself each time and eventually emerges cured. It’s an exaggeration of the counselling process obviously, but neither is it that far from the truth. The best therapists listen and ask questions, interjecting or offering their own insight only when necessary, because they know what their patient needs is to verbally drain all the muck that’s been building up in their brain – and in articulating it, make sense of it, and in making sense of it, opening up the path to moving on. So while a wise or comforting word can definitely add value to the conversation, the primary thing here is to listen – the more you lend a sympathetic ear, the more exorcising it’ll be for the other party.
– Finally, offer your support. Ask how you can help, if you feel you can. Remind them you’re always happy to chat. Encourage them to take some time off for themselves. Cover for them if they want to head home early. Assure them it’ll get better in time. Perhaps most importantly, say something nice about them. They’ve probably already had their fair share of advice and pats on the shoulder, but a compliment – whatever it may be about – can be so much more precious and go so much further for someone whose self-esteem has probably become as thin and brittle as a Communion wafer.
When I broke up with my ex-girlfriend a year ago, a mate of mine, Josh, called me pretty much every night for a week. He didn’t ask “are you OK” or “do you need to talk”. He just called. If I needed to vent, the conversation would naturally steer in that direction and he’d listen and offer his thoughts and support. Other times the convo didn’t go down that path at all – we’d just chat about whatever, silly dude shit, and it was a welcome distraction. Either way, and above all, the calls were a subtle but reassuring reminder that whatever goes rotten and drops off in your life, your mates – your old and close friends – are still there. “Looking out for your mates” is a common term in mining, the industry in which I work, and I think it’s awesome. Look out for your mates’ physical safety. Look out for their mental well-being.
There’s so much more I could write about depression. There’s the social aspect: We often talk about economic disparity and how some people are lucky to be born into wealth while others have to endure poverty. But I believe the psychology you develop as a child – thanks to your parents, teachers, peers, experiences, cultural environment – creates an even bigger and longer-lasting disparity. Those kids whose self-esteem is beaten down, whose yearning for love is denied, who witness or experience some sort of trauma… They will have a much harder time, later in life, establishing relationships, climbing the corporate ladder, even just maintaining a positive outlook and taking proper care of themselves. The saddest thing of all, of course, is those who are mentally damaged yet devoid of the financial and emotional support most of us take for granted. These are the people you see wrapped in blankets holding cardboard signs on the street. Make no mistake: they are victims of a debilitating condition, left unchecked by the antibiotics of love and support.
Not to get too morbid, but the other tragic victims of depression are, of course, those who are no longer with us. If you’re one of the doubters who think depression is just “having a shit day” – when’s the last time you genuinely considered slashing your wrists or jumping off a bridge after a shitty day? Sufferers of cancer, AIDs, physical trauma – despite their pain and immobility, they still desperately try to hold on to life. Depression can be so bad that the desire to hold onto life is gone. The way I see it, the difference is that depression takes away rather than adds. Most chronic diseases/conditions add issues to your existing life and self – pain, discomfort, inconveniences such as needing assistance to urinate or getting injections every day. Whatever changes in your physical form or lifestyle though, you still get to hold on to those core things you had before – hope, self-love (and faith in other people’s), a sense of perspective… All those things that keep you going in life.
Depression doesn’t add pain to nor technically disable one’s body (notwithstanding my point about the extreme fatigue it can induce). But it takes away those spiritual and emotional foundations in which your dignity and drive as a person are anchored. It’s a degrading black hole that, once opened up in your internal universe, can wreak absolute havoc. And like a cosmic black hole, it can’t be seen except by its effects – so if a depressed person is adept at hiding these, which most long-time sufferers are, you’ll have little idea what tremendous damage is being done inside as all their inner light is slowly extinguished by darkness.
Which brings me to this quote you’ve probably seen before in one form or another, but perhaps didn’t give much thought to:
If you break your arm, everyone will sympathise, sign your cast, understand that you can’t do your work properly for the next eight weeks or whatever. Experience a decline in mental health though and nobody wants to know. For all the lip service organisations are starting to pay nowadays to mental health, I think it’s fair to say that it’s still not taken particularly seriously, even as depression becomes ever more prevalent in our ever-more sterile, stress-filled world. Co-workers might confide in those they trust that the sickie they took yesterday was in fact a much-needed ‘mental health day’, but could you comfortably, openly ask your boss for one?
Depression does not always mean
Beautiful girls shattering at the wrists
A glorified, heroic battle for your sanity
Or mothers that never got the chance to say good-bye
Sometimes depression means
Not getting out of bed for three days
Because your feet refuse to believe
That they will not shatter upon impact with the floor
Sometimes depression means
That summoning the willpower
To go downstairs and do the laundry
Is the most impressive thing you accomplish that week
Sometimes depression means
Lying on the floor staring at the ceiling for hours
Because you cannot convince your body
That it is capable of movement
Sometimes depression means
Not being able to write for weeks
Because the only words you have to offer the world
Are trapped and drowning and I swear to God I’m trying
Sometimes depression means
That every single bone in your body aches
But you have to keep going through the motions
Because you are not allowed to call in to work depressed
Sometimes depression means
Ignoring every phone call for an entire month
Because yes, they have the right number
But you’re not the person they’re looking for, not anymore.
– Hannah Nicole
Fighting depression can be like trying to repel a cloud of mustard gas with a sabre. No matter how valiantly and fiercely you swing it still feels hopeless. So I’ve realised an important thing is not to fight it. Not to get depressed about the fact you get depressed. To remember that no matter how thick the smog may be that consumes your brain, it will disperse, while the light of your soul burns steadfastly on. Focus on that light, and let the darkness just be until it isn’t.
The key thing above all is to love yourself. I know that’s such a cliched New Age thing to say but it’s true. A couple of weeks ago my dad asked me what I had for dinner and I answered, truthfully, tinned spaghetti. He responded by saying that I need to take care of myself and I knew what he was getting at – that heating up some shit in a tin for dinner at the end of a long day at work is not doing justice to yourself. It made me think back to how I’d treat dinner time whenever my girlfriend was coming over – lovingly made meals with fresh ingredients, beers, candles, soft jazz music… Sometimes, if it was a cold night, I’d even turn my TV into a virtual fireplace for extra ambience. Afterwards there’d be dessert, a plunger of tea and a movie ready to go.
So yes. What the fuck was I doing now, spooning Heinz spaghetti straight out of the saucepan? Am I myself not worth the effort to make dinner a nourishing and pleasant experience? It’s too easy to let yourself sink into a routine of instant meals and unwashed dishes, empty pizza boxes and beer bottles accumulating along the kitchen bench. But just coz no-one’s coming over anymore shouldn’t matter. You’re there. Do it for yourself. Love yourself. Respect yourself. Light the candles, play the music, pop on the kettle for afterwards. You’ll feel much better for making the effort.
Finding what resonates with your soul, and bringing that into your life as often as possible, is crucial. For me, a trip to the forest or countryside is deeply rejuvenating. Even just lying on the grass in the sun is healing. Physical exercise is a huge one – I wrote about this in considerable detail years ago and it still rings true today. If you’re the type, creative activity can be immensely therapeutic too – whether it’s playing an instrument, colouring in mandelas, or doing what I’m doing right now. If I feel particularly bad and run-down – that glandular fever-like state – I’ll grab my cat and just lie on the bed and appreciate the softness of the sheets and the preciousness of this little creature curled up acquiescently and peacefully next to me.
Depression is nothing to be ashamed of. Many of the world’s greatest artists, thinkers and leaders have been part of the black dog club – from Churchill to Hemingway, van Gogh to Mozart, Stephen Fry to Robin Williams. It’s been argued, in fact, that their depression – their emotional fragility, darkness and mutability – is part of what made them so brilliant, a catalyst in bringing forth their genius, their ability to tune in to deeper frequencies of the world and communicate what they absorbed back to us through their chosen channel of endeavour. As Goethe put it:
Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the darksome hours
Weeping and watching for the morrow,
He knows ye not, ye heavenly Powers.
Depression is depressing, no doubt. It’s exhausting and damaging and frustrating. You ask yourself in exasperation, “Why do I fall down like this?” As I mentioned back in part 1, I fell down many, many times in my teens and 20s, my heart bruising and scarring on each impact, my mind finding itself down very deep, dark holes that I couldn’t understand how to get out of and which nobody knew about, much less understood. It might seem like a flippant statement but I’ve got no doubt at all that if I’d have been free of those demons, systematically destroying what I was desperately trying to cultivate, I’d be happily married by now. I had tremendous love to offer and felt it from others. But that’s not how it was. And if it had been, I just as surely wouldn’t be writing this right now, and perhaps, in however small a way, that would be a loss too.
I can’t answer for sure why we fall the way we do, but the best answer I’ve heard is simple and beautiful: So we can learn to pick ourselves up.
I’ll finish up with a few words about my favourite symbol in the world, which is from one of my favourite books in the world: The Neverending Story. You might remember from the better-known (but inferior) movie version that the main protagonist, Bastian, wears an amulet called AURYN which he wears throughout his quest – a quest which seems to be about saving Fantastica but is really about saving himself. It’s comprised of two snakes, one light and one dark, which intertwine to form a powerful, magical whole:
I hope at this conclusion you can understand why I find it so inspiring and meaningful. Thanks for reading 🙂