mental health

I know you mean well, but…

It bothers me when people blast boiler plate social media statuses reaching out to the depressed and suicidal among us. It probably shouldn’t bother me, since I know their hearts are in the “right” place, but it does. I read such a status this morning. I personally know the woman who posted it, and I’m absolutely certain she meant well when she wrote that she knew “life can suck” sometimes, but it’s also “amazing and beautiful”. I’m positive that she also meant it when she posted, “you are loved.” And yet, somehow I still felt kind of diminished when I read that status, even though I’m no longer depressed.

I have a hard time believing it when most people post those kinds of statuses, particularly when they didn’t write them themselves. It’s hard to feel like something came from the heart when it’s been rehashed by hundreds of people. It’s not just trite suicide and depression “support” statuses that bug me, either. It’s those kinds of posts about any illness or social ill. People share them, but don’t really mean them… and they mainly do it because they want to feel better about themselves, not because they want to help other people in pain.

I have been suicidal before. It was a long time ago, and I haven’t felt that despondent in many years. There was a time in my life when I felt like shit every day and it didn’t seem like it would ever get better. In fact, it did take months before I stopped feeling so downtrodden and exhausted by living. It makes me sad to remember that time, since I was still very young and I had so many opportunities ahead of me. There were things I could have done that would have taken me to exciting places– places different than where I am now. Where I am now isn’t awful by any stretch, but I can’t help but be wistful remembering that I spent my mid twenties feeling like packing it in. I remember thinking that my twenties were supposed to be the best years of my life, and yet I felt so crummy. How would I deal with my thirties, forties, and fifties if I felt so shitty at what was supposed to be the prime time of my life?

I probably wasted a good two or three years feeling horrible, even though I was getting treatment at the time. There were many days when I fantasized about suicide, since as far as I could tell, the rest of my life would be just as bleak and hopeless as that time seemed. I remember thinking no one cared, even though there was some evidence to the contrary. I also remember people not wanting to talk about depression. I remember being told that I shouldn’t talk about it, either, and that all I really needed was God, more exercise, better nutrition, or St. John’s Wort.

Fortunately, at that time, Facebook didn’t exist. I didn’t have to read trite blasts on social media about how life is beautiful and someone out there “cared”. I think on a basic level, I knew that life was beautiful– but to me, it seemed like it was beautiful only for other people, not for me. And I knew that people “cared”, but when I was in that state of mind, it seemed more like they cared because I was a burden to them. They wanted me to feel better, because my depression was “catching”, or somehow made them feel anxious or guilty. It wasn’t about my feelings; it was about theirs. Then, when I felt better, they could go back to not caring anymore. I now realize those feelings aren’t really accurate. But that’s how they seemed when I was depressed.

I guess that’s what really bugs me about those kinds of posts. They make sense when you’re mentally well or not in a desperate situation where it seems like things are really bleak. They don’t make sense when you’re not thinking clearly. I liken depression to a thick, heavy, dark burka… stifling, uncomfortable, exhausting, and opaque. It’s hard to see beyond the thick, suffocating folds of the burka, how life can be “beautiful” and “amazing” some time in the future. When you’re buried in the thick layers of depression, you can’t imagine anything beyond that heavy cloak of despair. At least in my case, no amount of someone telling me how amazing life is was going to make me understand or believe it.

Trite statements against suicidal ideation make it seem so easy to just “get over it”. It’s like the person who wrote it says, “I know you feel like shit on a daily basis and things seem hopeless and aren’t getting any better, but I ‘care’ and I want you to keep living, even though you’re in pain. Life is beautiful!” And then, feeling good about themselves, they go away while the depressed person is just sitting there thinking “WTF”. Is that person really going to be there to help walk another person out of despair? I know some people will do it, especially if it’s their job, but in my experience, most people won’t. When it comes down to it, a person has to have the will and the energy to take care of themselves, and some people don’t have either of those qualities.

What if life is truly not beautiful? You say you “care”, but you’re just someone on social media. Could I really call you in the middle of the night when I’m feeling especially desperate or despondent? Would you really want to hear from me when I’ve got the non-stop tapes running in my head, telling me how futile living is and how rotten I am? In the case of my friend who posted that status, maybe I could… if I had her phone number, which I don’t. We live in different time zones, anyway. For a lot of other people, I doubt I would take them seriously and I know that if I did call them, they’d be annoyed.

Life got better for me when I started taking the right antidepressant. Four days after my first dose, my mood improved markedly. I started feeling like the burka was loosening until it finally fell off. I was able to make plans and get out of the situation I was in that had me feeling so down and helpless. I continued treatment for the time I was in graduate school, then within a couple of years of graduation, stopped taking antidepressants. I literally don’t feel the way I used to. I still get depressed and anxious, but it’s not that heavy, dull, stifling burka. It’s more like an ill fitting windbreaker. It’s like my body chemistry is permanently changed. But that’s how it is for me. I was very, very lucky. I don’t know if that’s how it would be for someone else, and I can’t judge them for the way they feel, since I am not living their lives and I’m not in their circumstances.

Yes… although sometimes life really may not be worth living. I respect that possibility, too.

I also don’t like it when people ask suicidal people to live for someone else. I think suicidal people have enough guilty feelings without being told that it’s their duty to keep living for another person. I might waver a bit on this if the suicidal person is a parent. After all, parents bring new people into the world, and they have a responsibility to see to their children’s care. But… even in those cases, I see suicide as more of a terminal event than a selfish act of self-pity. People die of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or any other manner of physical ailments. Depression is no different. I don’t see it as the “common cold” of mental illness. It’s more like a chronic disease, like diabetes or lupus. Unfortunately, sometimes people die of depression, just like they would any other disease.

There are many hurdles to getting over depression. First, there’s the idea of picking up the phone and calling a therapist. For me, that was the toughest part. I had to find one who could help me, and that seemed like a really daunting task. Fortunately, someone I knew at the time had a lot of experience with seeing mental health professionals. He recommended the psychologist who helped me feel better. I haven’t spoken to that guy in many years, but I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. He may have even saved my life. He was one person who said he would help, meant it, and followed through with real assistance. But even with that recommendation for an excellent therapist, it took me weeks to make the phone call to arrange for my first appointment. I was terrified and mortified. I happened to call when the therapist was on his annual fly fishing vacation, so I had to wait two weeks.

Then there’s the idea of paying for therapy, which if you don’t have a lot of money, but you do have a lot of anxiety, can seem petrifying. I was lucky enough to be working at a job where I made good money, and I lived with my parents, who didn’t charge me rent. But if I weren’t in that fortuitous situation, it would have been much harder for me, especially since even with insurance (an individual policy I paid for with money from the job that had contributed to my depression), the medications I needed were very expensive. Also, I had never used civilian health insurance before, so I wasn’t sure what the process was. That’s a skill they really should teach in high school– how to use health insurance and why it’s so important.

You have to work up the energy and commitment to try to get over depression… and when you’re feeling apathetic and worthless, it hardly seems worth the bother. So… I guess, when I read a trite statement by a well meaning person reminding me that “life is beautiful” and “someone cares”, it just seems kind of dismissive and maybe even a little bit rude, especially when we live in a country where lawmakers don’t want to help people who need to be helped. People talk about wanting to prevent suicide… or abortion… but when it comes down to it, they don’t want to take action that would make choosing life more feasible. Instead, a lot of people would rather just toss the mentally ill into prison or condemn them for being lazy or self-centered.

I’m going to segue briefly, because I recently came across something not akin to depression or suicide, but still kind of illustrating my point. A couple of days ago, I read about a woman named Jamie Jeffries, who claims to be pro-life. She posted on Facebook about how she’d talked a mom out of having an abortion. Six months after the baby boy was born, CPS took him into their care due to neglect and abuse. The family put Jeffries down as the next preferred placement for the baby. Do you know what Ms. Jeffries’ reaction was to that? Have a look…

Mmmmkay… so you feel just fine about talking a woman out of having an abortion, even though she was ill equipped to care for her baby. But when the shit went down, you were not willing to help her. Shame on you, Jamie.

I know a lot of people would ask why the mother didn’t put the baby up for adoption. Many people don’t consider how difficult that is. Just because the mother wasn’t ready to take care of a baby, that doesn’t mean she was prepared to give away her child. Maybe that would have been the more moral thing to do in some people’s eyes, but it might have still been impossible for her. It’s a lot to ask. Others would condemn the mother for having unprotected sex when she wasn’t ready to have a baby. So she made a mistake. Are you perfect? I don’t know what the circumstances were that put her in the situation she was in, but she’d already made up her mind and had come to the right conclusion that she wasn’t ready to be a mother. Then Jamie Jeffries tried to “help”.

Anyway… this piece isn’t about abortion, per se, nor is it really about suicide. It’s more about people making promises they can’t keep. It’s like Captain Lee on Below Deck saying “Your mouth just wrote a check that your ass can’t cash.” (he’s full of these kinds of profane sayings– I find them very funny) People often say they care and will help. But when it comes down to it, most of their “mouths write checks their asses can’t cash”. Where does that leave the person for whom they mean well?

I am always grateful to those who want to help and mean it. If you really mean it when you say a depressed person can call you day or night, then good on you. If you mean it that you’ll drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, listen to them cry, help them pay for their healthcare, and, if they’re pregnant and considering abortion, do what you can to help them care for their baby, then I have nothing but respect and admiration for you. But in my experience, most people who make these claims aren’t serious. So, when I see something like that posted on social media, I think it’s often more about them feeling better about themselves and looking noble than actually wanting to help someone in need. And that’s probably why I feel diminished and put off when I see those kinds of well meaning “feel good” statuses posted on social media.