When it comes to physical illnesses, it is rare that someone is told that they shouldn’t feel the pain or discomfort they feel. If someone has kidney stones for example, it is unlikely they will be told that they have no reason to complain of the agony (I haven’t had kidney stones myself but from what I have seen on television it doesn’t look like a pleasant experience), but are accepted in their distress and treated accordingly. You would think then that the same would apply to mental illnesses which are after all as legitimate and debilitating as any physical illness out there, but for some reason this is not the case, especially when it comes to things like depression.
Over the years I have been diagnosed with depression, one of the most common things I hear is that I shouldn’t be depressed.
Indeed, several times after people have heard that I have depression I have been told to imagine I am a person in a concentration camp during the holocaust. Now I am all for using one’s imagination, without people using their creative abilities to imagine scenarios separate to the ones they were experiencing we would never have had Harry Potter (cheers J.K.Rowling. Good work there mate), but I find it hard to understand exactly what benefit using my imagination to pretend I am living in Nazi Germany will have on my mental health.
I think when people give me this advice the purpose is to illustrate how lucky I am in comparison to other people. They think that people in concentration camps who were unhappy were allowed to feel that way because their circumstances justified the emotions. They didn’t need to feel any shame or guilt for complaining about their situation because their situation was truly horrendous and beyond comprehension. So what is my excuse? What have I got to be depressed about?
I am not being held captive in disgraceful living conditions, I voluntarily inhabit a light and bright flat with running water, heating and a television with over a hundred channels. I do not have an army of Nazis in my life, I have two loving parents who often go out of their way to make me feel better about myself and demonstrate how much they value me as a human being. I am, compared to many people in this world both past and present, incredibly lucky, so I suppose I understand the confusion someone would feel when they hear how incredibly unhappy I am on a day to day basis. That said, when people tell me to compare myself to someone who has been in a situation as traumatic as the holocaust it doesn’t make me feel better or happier at all. Instead all it does is make me feel guilty for sounding so ungrateful in my privileged existence, ashamed of my emotions and, like many people with depression, likely to bottle my feelings up to avoid stigma attached to them.
It is almost as if people think that people with depression need to carry around a permission slip with them at all times to justify their condition and thus mean they don’t have to feel guilty about it. Who on earth would decide who had permission? I know when I was unwell at school my mum was allowed to write a note to the PE teacher excusing me from playing sport, so does this mean she is the one who needs to write my little “Katie is allowed to be depressed” note. If my mum is the authority does that also mean that she needs to write depression permission slips for everyone out there? Do people realise how many people out there have depression? Where do people expect her to find the time? More importantly where the hell do they expect me to keep this document that must be carried at all times. Most of my clothes don’t have pockets and my rucksack is already full of things I need on a day to day basis. My bag is not a bottomless pit! I AM NOT MARY POPPINS! (Though I am practically perfect in every way and am rather fond of a spoonful of sugar alongside my antidepressants every morning).
Without a permission slip then, clearly I have no right to be unhappy and should be taken to court for the crime of feeling emotions without just cause. Its odd really because people would never complain about a person who is feeling unexplainably happy. Sometimes a person might wake up in a good mood for no particular reason, they may walk with a spring in their step and a merry tune hummed between their lips, yet if someone asks why they are so cheerful that day and they reply that they simply are, nobody whips out the truncheons to demand they provide a valid list of reasons to justify their emotional state with the threat of shame and judgement were a list not to be provided.
I really can’t help but wonder how on earth people telling me how to feel expect that to resolve the situation. If someone complains that they were hungry, me telling them that they aren’t hungry isn’t going to take the pain away and magically make a well filled baguette appear in their digestive system. Similarly, when someone hears that I am depressed and then tells me that I am not or that I shouldn’t be, happiness doesn’t suddenly start flowing through my veins. All it does is make me feel invalidated, guilty, ashamed and embarrassed, all of which are emotions that are a large problem in people with depression and are reasons that many don’t speak out to seek treatment. Depression as an illness makes you feel enough guilt and shame as it is without other outside influences supporting those inner voices. To feel the need to keep quiet because of those outside influences is an incredibly dangerous game and unfortunately one that I would argue is a reason many people lose their lives to this illness.
When it comes to depression I honestly think that the best thing to do is not to deny that it is a problem in the hopes that will make it go away, but to accept that it is the way it is and that that is ok. Obviously it doesn’t feel OK to be so desperately painfully unhappy for no reason at all, but that doesn’t mean you are not valid in your experience. When you actually listen to someone with depression rather than trying to make sense of their inner turmoil, you are far more likely to help them than you would be telling them to picture the bleak and terrible atmosphere of a Nazi concentration camp. When you listen to someone with depression you are allowing them to feel validated and sometimes feeling heard and validated is all people want. When someone speaks out about a mental health condition it doesn’t mean they are demanding you provide an explanation or solution for it. Sometimes they just want people to hear them. If you have depression it is OK to feel whatever you feel and rest assured that you don’t need to come to my house to get a permission slip to justify your emotions (you are more than welcome to come over for a cup of tea of course but as for the permission slip thing there really is no need to bother.) You are allowed to feel and justified in feeling sad, whether you are suffering in a traumatic situation or if you are “lucky” enough to live in Buckingham Palace with a crown on your head, five hundred corgis and are able to pay for your daily newspaper by simply handing over a self portrait printed onto a circular metal disk. Feel whatever the hell you are compelled to feel whether that feeling be positive or negative, even if it makes no sense (especially if it makes no sense), and don’t let anyone tell you that you should do any differently.
Take care everyone x