Following on from my last post, Depression: 7 ‘Insider Secrets’ – Why It Isn’t What It Looks Like! I continue my insights into why people struggling with depression may display certain behaviours & how ‘what you see‘ is NOT ‘what is really going on unseen.’
Although there are many common traits with depression & its manifestations, this is my personal experience & other people may react differently. I hope that some of what I share may help those of you who suffer to recognise that you are not alone & help those of you who know someone suffering to appreciate just how complicated seemingly simple things can become & why we don’t always say or do what you expect.
- What we say isn’t always what we mean: Depression is not selective in its choice of victim & it sucks on our mental energy like a leech! Although it may suppress our interest in communication, we do still talk & when we do, we use the same language that we would normally. I have held in-depth conversations on neuroscience, music, arts & more, only to go home & collapse in a heap, either through mental exhaustion or emotional overload. The problem is that we try our hardest to help others feel comfortable in our presence, whilst shielding them from what is going on inside our head & in so doing, we burn up huge amounts of energy. We may string words together in a sentence yet, at the same time, be struggling to understand basics like who we are. Whilst we ‘hold it all together‘ externally, internally we retreat to a world where our thoughts move faster than Formula 1 racing cars, but all in different directions. It can be a strange & scary place. Despite our best efforts to carefully construct what we say, this energy deficit can (& often does) lead to a momentary lapse of concentration, at which point we could say almost anything (& usually do). Unfortunately, when this happens we also fail to notice what we have said. It certainly does not engage or alert us emotionally. So, whilst we happily continue our conversation we can leave the listener confused, angry, hurt, offended etc without realising it. We only find out after the event, at which time the damage has been done. If we do discover that we have caused a problem, we are often gripped with icy fear, desperately trying to remember context, sentence construction, timing, setting, what was said before, what was said after & by whom. But rarely can we make any sense of it, so we lose sleep, withdraw from contact & are gripped in the claws of over-powering guilt & anger against our self which can dominate our life for days or even weeks.
- If we are asked to explain our words or actions we will probably get it wrong: Expending lots of energy is not good for what we say. But neither is it good for our memory, especially short-term. It also makes understanding of the context almost impossible. So offering an explanation for our words or actions can be incredibly difficult. As a result, it is usually easier to simply conclude that we have blown it again & retreat into our world of self-condemnation. In short: we try to remember but can’t, so we either don’t offer anything or we get things horribly wrong which can make things worse. If we are silent when we have screwed-up royally, please understand that it isn’t arrogance or pride or failure to acknowledge our mistake (we are intimately aware of all of these things), it is simply that by staying silent we feel that we can cause no further problems, pain or offence … & therein lies the problem: the other party is often waiting for an explanation & get none. The result is that both parties end up badly hurt.
- Fear of loss is a powerful driver: In the world of commerce, fear in the workplace kills motivation, breeds suspicion & arouses anger. In the world of the depressed person, fear is a powerful master that paralyses action & convinces us that there is no way out. We are afraid of many & most things: our job (if we have one); our friendships; our family; our decisions; our future; our now. The most powerful fear in my experience is that we may lose any of the these, very quickly, because of how we act or through what we say or don’t say. By losing these we lose our anchor, our reference point, our reasons & our direction. Fear can be a brutal master in the mind of a depressed person: if we do something good it will go wrong, usually when we least expect it; if we have friendships, we will lose them because of what we may do or say; if we have a family they will desert us because they can no longer cope with us as we are; if we make a decision, it will all go wrong eventually; there is no point in looking to any future because we either won’t make it there or it will all go belly up & life will be more difficult than it is now. ‘What ifs‘ can also lead to poor (or non-existent) decision-making. The result is that we do not always make for easy company even though we may try very hard to be exactly that!
- We are not always good at showing what & how we feel: Probably the most common emotion we express is none at all! This isn’t some act of being devious. It is usually because we cannot access our emotions & if we can access them, we cannot or are too afraid to express them. It is all part of the protective mechanisms that we put in place for others & for our self. Sometimes, when we are particularly ill, we can become ‘dissociated’ which is where we are looking in from the outside at our situation, our actions & what we are saying & we are unable to engage with it: we are our own spectator. This can be a scary place as we really don’t feel anything or know how to react. Life can be monochrome or monotonous. Emotions can be extinct. It is often the hardest time to handle, both as a sufferer & for the outsider. It is also very hard to describe to someone who has never experienced it.
- Depressed people are vulnerably human & humanly vulnerable: Our malfunctioning mind & distorted thinking set us up for pain. We make mistakes-a-plenty in both word & deed, yet we have neither the energy or mental capacity to handle the consequences of our shortfall. Just occasionally we allow people close enough to really know how we feel, but that can be rare because it is such a risk. Nearly everyone I have spoken to who has struggled with depression has an experience (or several) where they have been badly burned by trusting the wrong people. In my case, I shared some sensitive personal information with a friend as I was looking for ways forward & thought they could provide some insight. It was only when another friend absent-mindedly mentioned elements of the conversation to me a few weeks later that I realised my mistake & by that time it was too late. Sure; I should have been more discerning with my choices, but the reality for a lot sufferers is that, as mentioned above, we lack the mental resources to make wise decisions & in some cases, having a person who is willing to listen is such a luxury that our mouth opens before our brain engages.
- Depressed people really do care about others, often too much: It is probably clear by now that when we are depressed, we can think too much about others & not enough about our self. We focus with great detail on what we can’t change (situations, others, what we have done) & not enough on what we can change (especially our responses to our failures). We will expend a huge amount of energy protecting others but invest little in our own health. When we make mistakes they can be quite momentous, in our own mind at least. We obsess about them; we try to resolve them; we look for answers: yet we fail. From the outside, our actions can seem like we don’t care about others but that is rarely the case (although those who have suffered physical or mental abuse can find relationships very challenging for obvious reasons). Any punishment we may wish to mete out is usually focussed at ourselves. Please believe us; we really do care, a great deal, about you our friends, it’s just that all this other stuff can make that difficult to see.
- We live to get through the day rather than to enjoy the moment: Survival is a major focus & just getting through a day, unscathed, is often a luxury. My counsellor once described depression as being like a car running out of fuel but keeping running on the fumes until they dry up. Getting the engine running again (especially if it is a diesel) can be very hard work: it sometimes takes dismantling, repairing, refilling & persistence to get the engine started again … & this is a great analogy for a person suffering from depression. Recovery (being able to function normally day-to-day & appreciate enjoyment) can be long & require a lot of input from different places & people.
Depressed people need support & understanding. We are broken & need fixing.
When I spent 3 years on crutches & over 2 years in various leg casts (left, right & both) I had no problem with people holding doors open for me, offering lifts & generally being helpful. My problems were highly visible & prompted action.
When I was seriously depressed, much of my pain & incapacity was hidden. People told me there was no reason to be depressed, to brighten-up, to smile more: the assumption was either that I could do something about it or because it wasn’t visible it was less significant. Some friends denied any problem existed, usually because I was the ‘last person they had expected to go under‘ & therefore, they too were vulnerable if they accepted it was real!
I am not trying to make excuses for our behaviour & I am not saying that our mistakes don’t cause pain. These thoughts are always at the front of our thinking & often drive our behaviour. The thought of failure, letting people down or hurting others can cripple our thinking & prevent us from taking any action. When we take action we usually wait for ‘the catch‘ or ‘for it all to go horribly wrong‘ which is one reason we take a lot of convincing to believe differently: that is a risk & in order to handle risk we need some sort of security as an anchor. If we don’t believe or expect too much then it isn’t such a big shock when disaster finally comes. If we believe too much, hope too much or expect too much & it all goes wrong, we take several steps backwards & realise that we were stupid for daring to believe that things could be different. Such is the deception of depressive illness.
Patience with depressed people is essential, but often lacking, not through anything malicious but simply because people see how they would react or deal with a situation, rather than appreciating the impotence of the depressed person to put together & offer any kind of meaningful explanation or solution to a problem.
Things can be very different. We can recover. We can change. With your help, patience & love, we can begin to see that change is possible. That road is often winding, mountainous & full of traps & potholes, but when we do see progress we are able to gradually change the way we think & move towards wholeness again. We can put fuel back in the tank, get it flowing to the places it needs too be & hopefully, just hopefully when we press the ignition button the engine will start again.
Thanks as always for reading & I hope you have found my further meanderings helpful. I welcome your comments, experiences & feedback.
Take care until next time …