The first time I muttered something about being caught in waves of inexplicable sadness alternating with equally inexplicable apathy to someone, I was more afraid of their response than my pain. It was after a long period of failed negotiations with the ubiquitous and speedily expounding grey-dark inside my head. I hadn’t yet learned the word for what I was sinking into—a major depressive episode. I would use names of colours to describe the sharp agony and inertia. The fogginess was adamant and while I was not considering ending my life, I did not exactly mind it coming to a screeching halt or maybe even slipping wordlessly into the sandman’s shadow (thanks to a lot of Twilight Zone feeding my appetite). I frequently contemplated terminal illnesses or accidents or just being vaporized by Martians at night, sleeping on the terrace in thick of the June heat. I didn’t have sufficient understanding of what was wrong except that I knew how wrong it felt every hour of the day. I was still in my pre-teens and my childhood up till this point had been a covert war of sorts. My identity was fragmented and my mind seemed to be following suit. I wanted erasure and burial. I wanted a comfortable disappearance.
And then I finally marshaled every quailing nerve to tell a teacher about it. The response hit me like a snapped rubber-band — “ Just don’t think too much. It will go away.”
I stepped back into the invisibility that went from being my most debilitating nightmare to my only “safety”. I tried to wish it away bent at the pew of my boarding school’s neat chapel. I looked at the kitchen garden outside our prep hall and thought of Monet’s flowers. I cried soundlessly into my pillow while my roommate who shared the top bunk of our bunkbed snored without interruptions. I tried to shut my eyes tight till I could see an entire constellation glimmer up behind my closed lids. The feeling of being adrift didn’t go away. If anything, it became more pronounced, more menacingly predatory.
When I recall those moments I often think of what Alejandra Pizarnik wrote—
“I have been born so much and twice as much have suffered in the memory of here and there.”
I have lived with a Major Depressive Disorder for over a decade now. I also work as a clinical psychologist/therapist. A lot of people assume that these two statements should cancel each other out but they don’t. They do, however, inform the particular snags prevalent in each experience separately. As a shrink, I believe in healing, resurgence, imperfectness of emotions. As a survivor who is suspect to being consumed by depressive rumination, I wonder about the futility of knowledge juxtaposed against my desire for seeking refuge in perfection. Thankfully, I have learned to carve space for both because neither needs to be exact and I recognize that reflection accompanied by scope for revisions helps soften my urge to drag the mind through the arson of pessimistic loops.
Over the years, I have found help and even acceptance but always disproportionate to the judgment of those who infer that depression=sadness=a light-switch in your head you can flick on and off at will. A lot of times it is lack of awarness and unexamined conditioning. Sometimes, it is the acrid backwash of ignorance but mostly it is an unwillingness to consider how mental illness is not fiction or a flaw or a figment of imagination but an unsparing enormity that combines the most complex parts of human psychology, neurochemistry and our social mise en scène. It is a proven fact that a lot of folks shy way from seeking help due to the stigma of disclosure and its aftereffects rather than the actual condition.
Depression is like vantablack for emotions. It dissolves things within itself, leaving them faceless, leaving the space of occupancy nothing but an opaque patch. The presence of time, gravity, movement and thereby, emotional energy and connection fade into an isolating vacuity. At these junctures, it seems pointless to communicate, to reach out, to ask and certainly to hope that you will be received well by anyone around you. You feel you are lacking possibility that is core to existing with some kind of meaning. There is this distended conviction that everything I am, can do or be is utterly useless in the larger scheme of this world. Therefore, when someone makes an effort to find a shore in the wake of this shipwreck, the last thing they need is to be shut out with an oblivious shibboleth.
I have been asking friends, colleagues and patients who struggle with depressive phases what they wish they didn’t hear when they are depressed and it is saddening to realise how many people still have to bracket or veil their grief just to avoid being invalidated.
If you know of someone who deals with clinical depression or goes through depressive cycles/phases, here are some clear Dos and Donts.
1. Be open to listening without providing readymade/off-the-shelf solutions. A lot of people on the depression spectrum have probably been heaped with generous doses of platitudes and listless recommendations. If only we had a cuppa for each suggestion about a new variety of herbal tea, our blood type would be Chamomille or Earl Grey. What helps a lot more is an openness to sit with us in that umbrae of confusion without enforcing some form of suffocating positivity that seems not just impossible but also insufferable.
2. Depressive states when activated fully make us reduce ourselves as well as doubt and disengage from others to the point where basic tasks are hard to accomplish. Getting out of bed signals some impending defeat. Asking if we need something that can help with day-to-day functioning can make us feel less alone in our helplessness. Something as simple as a good morning call or text or a shared meal can make a huge difference to someone’s mood. It doesn’t take much but saves a lot in return.
3. Depression can also be appended by indecisiveness or just plain indifference towards our general wellbeing. Support us if we need someone to accompany us to a therapy appointment or the ER without questioning too much. It is often hard to articulate even elemental information when someone is going through severe depression. Being in the presence of trained and supportive medical/psychiatric/mental health professionals can ease people into communicating their challenges but this isn’t easily available to everyone. Getting there might seem harder than it is because a part of feeling depressed is a generalized sense of negativity and a need to recede. Having another person to gently nudge us forth and anchor us can enable a momentum for unburdening.
4. Recommend — sometimes with a loving firmness — speaking to a therapist or a mental health specialist especially if someone is repeatedly referring to suicidal ideation or a compulsion towards self-harm. You can help research available practitioners, hospitals, facilities that can be useful in such a situation.
5. Hold space with empathetic care. Instead of judgment, engage from a place of attention & acceptance. Let us know that what we are experiencing is not purely facile or insignificant but a complex condition and we don’t need to feel ashamed or perpetually battle discriminatory putdowns. Intervene when someone else tries to make us feel small or irrelevant. Shut down negative conversations others continue to have around us without considering the impact on our mental health.
1. Offer medical or mental health “solutions” if you are not a qualified professional. Irrespective of your intentions, your desire to affirm your saviour’s complex et al, unless you are trained in the field of mental health/behavioural medicine/psychiatry/counseling/psychotherapy, it is extremely dangerous to offer cobbled-up remedies that might worsen the situation.
2. Minimize our experiences and struggles by generalizing what we go through as a universal malady. Avoid such demeaning statements as “Why are you unhappy when everything seems to be working well for you?”, “Stop being sad. Cheer up!”, “Just smile more and it will be ok!” — These are incredibly hurtful for someone who has little to no control about how severe their depressive phases might get. The person then might clam up further instead of actively seeking help or speaking to someone about their challenges. This is how people turn into ghosts while still being alive.
3. Compare your failures/challenges with ours in such a way that it nullifies what we are thinking or feeling. It is demoralizing for a person going through depression to constantly hear how “everyone is unhappy” or how you have had it much worse but you are doing perfectly fine. Props to you, Hercules. These bromides are not exactly empirically proven facts and are usually an exaggeration. It is true that while we all deal with our own struggles individually, certain illnesses including clinical depression are highly specific and affect those who experience it deeply. We might share the same space but we don’t share the same lived reality.
4. Make shite jokes. Be cautious when you start using rough and punch-down humor to speak about serious topics like suicide or abuse that could be triggers and stressors for someone who is depressed. Humor when used with an intent to create ease and lighten the mood can help lift us up but when we use someone who is suffering as a punching bag, it can have a disastrous impact. Also, don’t reverse blame by making us feel guilty for the one time we made a joke about our situation. Remember that when the prisoner at the gallows makes a joke, it is satire. When the crowd gathered around to watch it for voyeuristic pleasure does so, it is a part of the execution.
5. Ask intrusive questions or make our condition a subject of gossip or idle politics. Do not share any information that we release to you without our consent. Heck, sometimes don’t do it even if you have our consent coz we may not be our best advocates in a period of critical dissociation. Certainly don’t put it up on social media in a fit of self-promotion. It is incredibly unethical to speak about someone else’s trauma publicly. It is not your place and it reduces the arc of our personal survival.
In his essay “Good for Nothing”, Mark Fisher wrote — “Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice which accuses you of self-indulgence — you aren’t depressed, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, pull yourself together — and this voice is liable to be triggered by going public about the condition.”
What makes it easier is the possibility of speaking my truth without a lingering fear that it won’t be heard or worse, rejected before it is understood.
(Note: This essay is not a substitute for clinical help for mental health. Please ensure that you speak to a trained professional if you or someone you know might be experiencing depressive episodes.)
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer, teacher, editor and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is an award-winning author and poet whose work is published or forthocming in Medium, Berfrois, Feministing, The London Magazine, The Quint, Vice, Jubilat, DATABLEED, Winter Tangerine, Cordite among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” (Lithic Press, 2018). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter/IG/Facebook. Send her chocolate and puppies — firstname.lastname@example.org.