Talking about depression & anxiety
(and how I can take it badly)
It’s not as though depression or anxiety are things that I talk about often. They don’t generally make good small talk. But from the talks I’ve had, I’ve noticed a few trends. From people I sorta know to people I consider close, each have their own types of questions and venues of conversation. That even deeper “levels” of intimacy can have questions that come off as shallow or less helpful than intended.
All of these can come from a place of care, I want to make that clear. And in some cases they’re very acceptable questions that can help. It’s only in some of my own situations -whether it be the way it’s delivered or even just my current emotional stability at the time- I find that they can make me want to shut down rather than open up.
I’ve been thinking about them partly to try to understand the person asking, but also to try to understand myself in how I receive it. To figure out what I think the problem is with the way they’re asking, and how that thought -true or not- effects the way I interact with other people.
LEVEL 1: IDENTITY (“Are you sure you’re depressed?”)
Usually it’s not worded so straightforwardly. I was once talking to someone during a semi-long car ride about my history with depression and about 15 minutes in, the person said “So, what do we have to do to get you out of this funk?” A less direct way I’ve had is asking about my history, where things ‘went wrong’, so to speak.
At worst, this can feel trivializing; my depression has been the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about before falling asleep, for years. Hearing that called a “funk” does not feel good.
Even when not trivializing, to me it can make me question whether or not I’m safe with the other person, that they trust what I’m telling them. It can feel like they’re verifying that it’s possible for me to be going through what I’m going through.
LEVEL 2: PROBLEM SOLVING (“Have you tried X?”)
Definitely not saying that people suggesting things is always bad. Especially when it comes to things like Chronic Fatigue, where people often offer based on their own experience. Even though some seem uninspired, like the first entry-level fix you’d try (e.g. exercise or a sleep study), they’re at least potentially valid solutions.
However, sometimes I feel as though the person is suggesting the cure. Like in a way, they’ve troubleshooted me in 10 minutes and found the real problem. And when it’s been something that you’ve been dealing with for a long time, that can almost feel dismissive.
LEVEL 3: EMPATHIZING (“I feel the same way / Everyone experiences that”)
A social anxiety / depression podcast I’ve listened to in the past starts each episode off with a reminder that there are thousands of other people listening to the same thing, each dealing with similar struggles. It’s a very common approach, to try to remind people in situations that they are not alone. And at times it’s highly needed; sometimes a reminder of my own humanity helps to put things in a better perspective.
However, other times it feels like it just minimizes or even negates how I’m feeling. Sometimes, to me, it’s a matter of proportion and my own reaction being disproportionate to the situation at hand; yes, everyone hates making phone calls to set up appointments, but not to the point of having the gut feeling that the person on the other end is mad at me.
LEVEL 4: INVESTIGATION (“Why do you feel that way?”)
Again: not always a bad thing. Actually incredibly helpful, since if I’m super hopeless I often don’t even try to figure out the cause. And talk therapy would be impossible without it.
Sometimes, though, things just don’t seem to have a discernible cause. Especially when it comes to emotions and physical symptoms. That emotion of fear with the phone, it didn’t come from a logical reason, nor can I find one. When I was asked the difference between days I sleep until late-afternoon and others I can be up mid-morning, I don’t have a concrete answer to give because I myself don’t know.
When I respond with “I don’t know”, it feels like sometimes the other person almost gets annoyed. And I get that, to an extent; I dislike not having an answer either. But sometimes the best I can do is just try to express what feelings or emotions or sensations I’m having and why they make it difficult.
LEVEL 5: ACCEPTANCE
If I had to sum up the way that I perceive how I can interpret these questions poorly, it’s that it feels like the other person is trying to fix me. To problem solve. Like it’s a one-man operation and I’m just the broken car. I’m not looking for you to fix me, I’m looking for you to help me fix me. Or sometimes, I’m not even looking for help, I’m just looking to talk. To be heard and validated.
My tendency for everything is to bottle it up. I don’t acknowledge my problems to myself, much less to others. There are a lot of ways people can help and they aren’t all mutually exclusive, but I think the most important for me is just acceptance. Providing that outlet, a way where I can say what I’m going through and have it be accepted and validated as how I’m feeling, regardless of if it makes any logical sense, that’s the best way to help, to me.