What’s the worst thing you can say to someone with depression? There are plenty of variations of the same thing. That’s right, it’s: but why don’t you just get up and do something? Why don’t you just stop being sad?
Well here is the thing that most people who haven’t experienced depression don’t understand about depression: you can’t.
You cannot ‘just get up’ or ‘just go outside’ or ‘just stop being sad’. It doesn’t work like that. Sorry. The inability to tackle fixing things is a symptom of this illness, and as much as depression (along with anxiety) is becoming the ‘polite face’ of mental illness, it is still ridiculously misunderstood by the vast majority of people.
Here’s what you really need to know about this can’t do/won’t do difference. To get out of really severe depression, you have to want to fight it. To want to fight it, you have to be several things all at once, many of which you’re unlikely to be.
1. You’ve got to be aware there’s a problem.
I was exceptionally fortunate to have learned relatively early on that I had depression and an anxiety disorder. No, I didn’t know what either were when I started showing symptoms in my early teens. But by the time I was 17 and having panic attacks, I learned very quickly. That’s really fast compared to many people.
I’ve known so many people who have been mentally unwell and attributed it to ‘just a bad patch’, or to a string of really shitty life events, or just plain refused to accept that their life could be better. And those people? Those people are frustrating. I think we need to admit that. We need to admit that the behaviour of people who are mentally unwell is frustrating.
Because you can accept that someone is frustrating but still want to help them, and sometimes the only way people will ever recognise how bad the problem is, is by being told. Because depression lies. Depression makes it so that you are incapable of seeing that better life. Getting past that is harder than we ever really talk about, because everyone who’s talking about it got through it already.
We need to talk about that more.
2. You’ve got to have help, which means accessing help is your first hurdle.
Next in my long line of fortunes and privileges: I had people around me who accepted my diagnosis and assisted me in accessing help immediately. Even though that help didn’t really do much for a long time, I was still encouraged and enabled to get it. I was lifted over that first hurdle.
Now imagine that you’ve developed depression as a teenager, but your family refuse to accept that it’s a mental illness. They call you lazy. They tell you to stop whining. They threaten to kick you out of the house if you don’t get a job. Sound harsh? It’s the reality for an awful lot of people.
This, if you had any cause remaining to wonder, is why fighting the stigma matters. It’s not just a theoretical oh, it would be nice if people understood. People understanding, recognising and being compassionate towards mental illness will actively and directly improve hundreds of thousands of lives.
And that’s all before you’ve even gotten into the financial or geographic hurdles when it comes to accessing help. And all of that assumes you are even capable of a) telling someone you’re suffering in the first place and b) willing to accept help thereafter.
3. You’ve got to be capable of effecting change.
Disclaimer: I have no scientific basis for the following, this is all based on my understanding from my own experience.
I genuinely believe that a sizeable proportion of depression recovery comes subconsciously (and probably also chemically). I genuinely believe that you have to be ready to get better, and that you cannot control at least a portion of that readiness.
Why? Because some days I can’t get up and some days I can. Nothing has changed. Nothing is different. But sometimes I’m fine and sometimes I’m not – and the proportion of fine to not changed for me even when I was refusing to use the help I was getting.
Whatever it is – whether it’s subconscious or chemical or something else – there is something that you cannot see that decides whether you’re ready or not. And that sucks.
4. You’ve got to want to let go of the safety blanket.
Jump back a couple of paragraphs. See that phrase I said? ‘Refusing to use the help I was getting’. Yeah.
I spent a long time very, very depressed. This time was in many ways insanely stressful. I was living well below the poverty line for much of it (but with, I have to stress, the safety net that I could always go and move in with family at any time). I had to go through a benefits appeal and tribunal (I’ll talk about that one day). I lived in an unsafe place at one point and had to escape it.
But I got up when I wanted to (mostly the late afternoon) and played computer games for 12 hours before going back to sleep. I ate whatever I wanted (mostly chocolate and crisps) and only really engaged with people as much as I cared to. For all that it was a very traumatic time, there is also a truth about depression that again, we don’t talk about enough.
I was comfortable.
I was comfortable, and I knew who I was, even if I didn’t like that person very much. Getting better? That would mean going outside my comfort zone. Becoming a person I didn’t know. Going forward into a life I couldn’t conceive of, let alone picture. Losing the ability to play computer games to the exclusion of all else.
You’ve got to be willing to give that up to move forward, and that is the hardest thing.
Because that comfort is a symptom of your depression, too. It is. It’s a lie. You’re not comfortable. You just can’t see how much more comfortable you could be, and that’s not your fault.
The worst part about it is this: at some point, ‘just get up’ becomes a thing you actually have to do. You just have to get up. And yes, you need to be ready, and yes, you need to have help. But at some point the only person who can risk that supposed comfort is you.
And…the first time you do it? You’ll probably fall flat on your face.
But you’ll keep doing it.
And eventually? Eventually, you’ll be standing upright, and you’ll realise you don’t know who you are, and that’s okay.
Thank you so much for being here and reading this. Remember that if you’re suffering, help isn’t as far away as you would think.