Sick Days

Before his girlfriend came into the picture, I used to talk in a very particular way with my brother The Narrator about depression.

Our conversations were rare, but they were of the kind a lot of depression sufferers have experienced–they centered around his trying to untangle the problem, to throw logic at it, to tell me I was being ridiculous and that my feelings made no sense. This is the classic uneducated response of the undepressed, and I understand it, and I’d be lying if I hadn’t tried to throw those same solutions at myself from time to time.

I would tell him about the dark places my mind wandered to when I was left idle: how I questioned the point of my existence, how I felt like a drain on resources and an accomplice in more terrible suffering than I could process, how everything I could conceive of doing with my time felt like a distraction from crushing, horrifying blankness. How leisure and lack of structure were terrifying because they gave me the chance to think this way.

I would say, “How does this never happen to you? Don’t you think about this? Do you have some kind of answers?”

And he would say, “How can you let your mind even go there? Why doesn’t it stop you? I have blocks in my head that keep me from feeling like that. I don’t go down those roads, because they don’t go anywhere good.”

We couldn’t make any sense of each other.

I still don’t have a very good grasp of the kind of shock absorbers my brother keeps in his head. They must be pretty elaborate. They must be more than just distractions for the issue–otherwise, wouldn’t the cognitive dissonance, the knowledge that he was just avoiding the question, eventually come back to bite him?

But things changed for both of us nonetheless.

I built shock absorbers, too, although they were different. I learned about my depression, and I began to understand that my feeling empty wasn’t a reaction to actual emptiness–it was a disconnect. It was a defect in perception. As someone who has been blisteringly, nerve-shakingly, heart-palpitating, hand-wringing, complimenting-strangers-on-the-bus, full-on-skipping-in-crowded-shopping-malls happy on so many occasions, I came to realize that what depression did was cut off my connection to the good parts of life by dulling my ability to react. All of the things that should have been making me happy were still there, but their signals got cut off over and over and nothing filtered down. Nothing got through.

The reasons why are tougher. Depression used to feel primarily philosophical to me, especially at my worst–but now that I’ve lived through my longest-ever stretches of feeling just fine, I’ve come to recognize that it’s primarily biological. I took myself just about as far as I could with positive thinking, with conscious coping mechanisms, with little rituals and routines that got me through bad nights. Those were my shock-absorbers. Once I trained myself in the art of getting through a depressive episode like it was some kind of heroic quest, some kind of crucial mission, it started to feel a little less world-shakingly catastrophic. My depression still disrupts me, absolutely–but it no longer knocks my worldview off its hinges on the regular. It’s become something to ride out.

Recently I found myself comparing it to feeling nauseous, as in motion-sick–there’s no real, rational reason to feel motion-sick. It doesn’t happen because you’re in danger. You aren’t doing it on purpose. There’s nothing anyone can really say that will snap you out of it, but there are a few things you can do that will make it suck a little less, and there are drugs you can take that will ease the symptoms.

I found this little simile pretty helpful, especially if you remember the way that carsickness dissipates and you feel perfectly fine again. This works for me, because my depression (at least for the last few years) has been episodic and always temporary.

I’m still looking for the right ways to explain all of this to my brother. I need The Narrator to understand that it really is like a sickness, and that it shouldn’t be strange for me to turn down invites because of it or to act a little differently. I shouldn’t need to make up other excuses over and over or use anything too complex to justify myself. I’m tired of feeling sick in ways that are beyond my control and being treated as though it’s my fault somehow that I’m disconnected.

Because you know what? It’s not. It’s really, really not.

Here’s some free advice for you to take home to your depressed friends and relatives.

It’s not their fault that the bridge is out.

It’s not their fault that a fuse has been blown.

It’s not their fault that the server is fucking down.

It is not a depressed person’s fault that the activities they “should” enjoy are rendered tasteless, dull or impossible by an illness they never asked for, and the worst thing you can do is put pressure on them to behave in a way they can’t.

In the interest of being useful, I present to you Norma Jean and the Narrator’s List of Depression Do’s and Don’t’s.

Brought to you by my brother The Narrator, DON’T:

– tell depressed people they’re upset over nothing
– treat them as though they should be able to out-think their depression
– use guilt to try to get depressed people to do things they aren’t up to- encourage them to do things like drinking, eating badly and not sleeping well
– assume that your experience is the same experience
– pester them repeatedly about why they can’t do some particular thing
– put them in awkward situations where they now have to explain their depression to whole groups of people
– treat their needs as secondary to other people’s desires for comfort and amusement
– act shocked and confused that a lifelong depression sufferer is (gasp) depressed right now.
– act as though turning down an invite because they’re depressed is rude or ungrateful

Brought to you by my best friend Norma Jean, DO:

– check in from time to time with people you’re close to who get depressed
– accept that they may have different levels of function, and can’t be “on” all the time
– believe them completely when they tell you what they feel and what they aren’t able to do
– let them know you care about them, and that going through an episode won’t change that- if you can, offer food or help out with simple household tasks like laundry or taking out garbage
– be there to listen if they want to talk about what’s going on
– be willing to offer little distractions and talk about your life instead of theirs
– make sure they are taking any medicine or vitamins they’re supposed to take
– reassure them that the decisions they make are valid and it’s okay to rest when they’re sick
– invite them again next time, and don’t take it personally if they can’t make it

It’s probably clear that this stems from a particular incident. I just want my brother to understand that it makes me feel like shit when he treats me like I am a problem instead of understanding that I have a problem. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little guide to being social with depressed folk, and I hope everyone you love is safe.




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