People often say things to me that imply that they can’t quite manage to believe that I have depression. Sometimes they outright say that I don’t have depression or say “But how can you have depression?”. Sometimes people react with shock or suspicion or by immediately assuming that I have very mild depression. More recently, I’ve noticed that when I talk about my depression, people reply as if I’m talking about something that happened in the past. They ask “What was it like?” “How did you cope?” and even “How did you get over it?” instead of “What IS it like?” and “How DO you cope?” and “Do you think you’ll one day get over it?”
I talked to some other people with chronic mental health problems and this weird tense-slip thing turned out to be a common experience.
I have had depression for over a decade. It’s been a major part of my life since childhood and if you think on that a minute you’ll have to realise that almost everyone who knows me in real life has only known me with depression. I’ve been depressed longer than some of my siblings have been alive. And I’m still depressed now. People often find this information hard to process because, well, they’ve got this image of depression in their heads and most of the time I don’t look like that. Depressed people are supposed to, say, cry a lot. Or repeatedly say “Oh I’m so depressed”. Or have visible physical scars or a very public crisis in which either a kind stranger, a good friend or men in white coats have to step in to rescue them from their own self-hatred. I don’t look like that. I look, well, normal.
Sometimes depression looks like me.
Sometimes depression isn’t so much crying and crisis and self-hatred as it is a near-insurmountable inability to motivate myself to do or enjoy anything. Without significant support from other people, I don’t eat or wash or get dressed or go out. I’m not sure exactly what it is I actually do but getting out of bed, going to bed and everything in between are really, really difficult for me to do – not in and of themselves but because I have very little motivation. I literally bribe myself, coax myself and if need be force myself to do these normal every day tasks that are required for Staying Alive.
Sometimes depression involves having difficulty concentrating on things and paying attention. So I find myself really, really wanting to understand what I’m reading, watching or hearing and just.. not doing. Repeatedly.
Sometimes depression isn’t so much not liking myself as it is thinking that I am an amazing, wonderful person… but it ultimately doesn’t matter because I’m never going to achieve much if I can’t even keep myself fed and dressed. I know I’m awesome but I feel unable to do anything much to show it. I feel like I don’t contribute enough to my friendships and relationships. I feel like I neglect my activism and my writing. I wonder why anyone likes me when I could do so, so much more to deserve it.
Sometimes depression looks like avoidance. I stopped seeing many of my friends a few years ago. I still love them dearly but am terrified of trying to reconnect in case they resent the distance I allowed to grow between us. I love my younger siblings but am scared of being a disappointment as a big brother because I disappear when things get bad and only reappear when I’m fairly sure I won’t somehow mess things up. My inaction causes the very thing I’m frightened of to happen and I sort of understand it but I still can’t find my way past the fear and hurt to reach out to those I love.
Other times, it can look like recklessness. I impulse buy things – usually small cheap items of food or jewellery to make myself feel better. I can afford to right now but I still find myself doing it when I really shouldn’t. They make me feel better for a while but are usually followed by guilt. I feel bad for daring to want to feel good.
Sometimes my depression even looks like success. When I was at my worst with my depression, I rarely cried in public but I did write two novels and hundreds of poems, pass nine GCSEs and four A Levels and share a rich and deep friendship and imaginary world with some wonderful people.
My depression waxes and wanes but it’s never really gone (for a few glorious months once I thought it had and then I had a sudden and unexpected breakdown). It mostly manifests as I’ve written before as unwanted thoughts and even dialogue inside my head telling me that I’m bad and worthless and exhausting me so I can’t always remember that i disagree.
I think I’m actually pretty amazing. My friends and partners and family think so too. I’m struggling right now but I tend not to look like I’m struggling; because most of it goes on inside my head, because I have adequate support to keep me fed and clean and dressed, because I push on and do difficult things like talking to people and leaving the house because I want to be a good friend, a good partner, a good brother.
This is what depression can look like. It can look like a charming, smiling, sociable, intelligent young man with lots of friends and people who love him. It can look exactly like someone “twitter famous”, a well-known and well-liked blogger. It can look exactly like a clean, well-dressed, knowledgeable acquaintance at a party.
Depression can look exactly like someone like me.
Which is to say, depression can look like anyone. It’s not something you can see.