.The inspiration for this morning’s blog comes from something that popped up in my Twitter news-feed a couple of hours ago. A friend had tweeted about Jim Murphy’s ill-advised jibe about how he hadn’t wanted to mention the moustachioed man in the audience of the leader’s debate because he had thought the man might be mentally unwell. This post isn’t about Murphy or his ability to spot sufferers of ill mental health just by looking at them, but is about one of the responses my friend got when he posted that, as someone who experiences the stigma of ill mental health, that he found Murphy’s comments unhelpful.
“Get over yourself. I suffered from and beat depression and I see zero malice here.”
This is a stock phrase often used against folks with ill mental health. Other versions include:
– “Well, I feel like that sometimes too, but I’m strong enough not to let it affect me.”
– “You should just exercise more/ get out more/ get up earlier/ stop being so wobbly. Honestly, you’re not helping yourself.”
– “I don’t let my depression or my illness define me. People need to be stronger/ get over themselves.”
– Basically anything by Katie Hopkins on the subject.
Why is this an unhelpful response? You might say, ‘Mon now, Jen – the guy also suffered from depression – don’t dismiss his experience.’ You’d be quite right to say that dismissing of others experience is at the heart of why this person’s response to my friend is unhelpful. Just as women are more than capable of being sexist against other women, and wealthy people who grew up in poverty are more than capable of lambasting those who don’t manage to ‘work their way out of it’, so people who have experienced ill mental health are just as capable of being utterly dismissive of those with ill mental health.
All of the stock phrases above view depression as a personality problem, as something that the sufferer needs to get over by ‘sorting themselves out’. A lot of people suffering from it, and I include myself in this, often feel like it is something that means that, fundamentally, yer a flawed human. That it’s yer own fault. If only I didn’t read so many books by beautiful, bearded, old, dead socialists. If only I weren’t so interested in politics. If only I could be like my friends and be all pragmatic in the face of powerful external forces. Then I wouldn’t be so depressed. I’ve had all of these thoughts. I’ve frequently told myself to get tae fuck because these thoughts were making me ill.
I got it arse about tit though. That I have an interest in politics, socialist thought, literature, the arts – they are personal preferences and things that are intrinsic to the characteristics that make up me. Depression isn’t. My depression is something that happens to me. At me. Sometimes from absolutely friggin nowhere. And it can be a shocker. As time has gone on, the shock has diminished and I have learned ways to confront it. That it is a part of how I experience life is different to saying it is a part of my personality though.
This is a tricky one, of course. Because depression feels deeply personal and in all honesty nobody is entirely 100% sure about the causes nor the solutions. What we do know for certain is that rates of ill mental health are rising. There are reasons for that – structural, systemic, political, social… This isn’t the place to hash all of that out, but in terms of setting the terms of that discussion, let me see if I can explain it a wee bit better…
I wrote in a poem, The Visit, written in 2007 “He might feel yours only, but depression’s a sailor/ you are but one of many ports,” and just as errant lovers may treat their various lovers in slightly different ways, depression is a possessive bugger too. The temptation, once ye know him well is to assume that your own experience of him gives you an insight into the way he is with others. And, to a certain extent it does. But misery is often so huge it has no need for company, and it is also tempting to assume that yer own experience trumps others.
“Depression” is a catch-all term for a deeply personal disease of the thoughts. It can be diagnosed, has shared characteristics across the board, but is also deeply personal. That’s why it is so hard to treat. It’s different for everyone and buggers us up in different ways and with different triggers.
“Beating” depression isn’t, for example, a particularly easy thing to do for chronic depressives – though it is possible to learn to live with it and to mitigate the hold it can have over yer day-to-day life. Again, those coping mechanisms will be different for everyone. For me, drugs did not work for example, but have worked excellently for others. CBT has been useful but often doesn’t entirely work, but for some reason watching origami making sessions online does. (I know, I know – strange, huh? But very relaxing). Long walks help me a lot, but enforced yoga or gym memberships are out. The latter work brilliantly for others. Essentially, the time to work out what works is key. A lot of people report how drugs have managed to allow them to do this whereas for me drugs made me feel more panicked than usual. Managing to address the reasons behind why I was making myself so very busy was what has helped me remarkably. Not to “get over it” but to find good and healthier ways of living than how I was for a while.
It is brilliant when ye feel ye have beaten it. It’s happened to me many times and for lengthy periods of time since the age of 15. The thrill of going a fortnight, or a month or even (joy!) a few months without feeling that the world and everyone in it is kind of… unreal is most wonderful.
Until recently, I had thought that the worst it could get was in 2001 when I was hospitalised due to the dreadful way it made me treat myself. So, when it returned with its good friend anxiety in 2013 one of my first thoughts was “Oh, FFS – didn’t I already get ye tae fuck a few years ago? Aren’t you something I grew out of?? Bastards…Also: shit. This is horrific – did I even have depression before, because this is something else…” Which it was. It was a different version of the same catch-all term ‘depression’ and expressed itself differently from how it did in my early 20s. While I’d “beaten” the urge to self-harm with sharp objects and illicit bottles of cheap cider followed by bouts of an intense wish to simply disappear, the new form encouraged me to self-harm in thoroughly different and arguably even more reckless ways that were largely utterly invisible. Both times felt utterly alienating: as if I had no control over what was happening to me – it was something that was happening at me. That’s yer definition of powerlessness right there. My thoughts punished me and my body felt traitorous. Getting both back to working in a healthy way takes a helluva time, a helluva lot of reading and a helluva lot of battling against powerful external and internal forces.
You’ve ‘got over it’? Well done. Genuinely. That takes a helluva lot of searching and can be horribly difficult. I am glad that you are better. You should know better than anyone that when you were in the throes of depression that if someone told you to “get over yourself” it would have been mighty unhelpful. Don’t be accidentally selfish in your triumph. Depressive illness is personal in its effects, triggers, causes, but it’s also a political issue, not helped by the atomised and alienated way we relate to each other, including on social media. Be kinder.
Now calmed to a daily dull-ache, where the dull-ache is sometimes a mere niggle and sometimes is a swampy fug, I’ve got it under control enough to the point where it can be reasonably swiftly dealt with through new coping mechanisms that it took time to forge as I got to know my condition better. I could quite easily present my ‘story’ as a tale of battle and recovery and redemption. I could’ve done that in 2001 too. But I won’t. I’m better than I was but I still have depressive tendencies and have to be extremely mindful, which isn’t always easy. I am proud to have managed to sort things to the extent that I have and at least identify if not entirely rectify the reasons why my thoughts punish me sometimes.
So, while I’m happy to be where I am now? Like hell would I feel fit to tell someone who is struggling to ‘get over’ themselves. Depression doesn’t exactly let you do that, because it is not something that you choose to happen to you. It is not you. Thus, the thing we have to get over might not be ourselves, but the way that we think about ‘recovery’ more generally.