This article was first published on news.com.au and has been reproduced here with permission.
Ben Pobjie is outspoken about his mental illness in public but finds it tough to talk about with friends and family.
[Image below courtesy of www.moodofmonk.com]
I want to tell you all about my struggles. But I don’t really know how.
How do you talk about depression? I don’t know. But of course I do know – I do it all the time. In public, speaking to an audience, I know exactly how to talk about depression.
I can speak about it easily to strangers, and I can write articles about my experience, and it’s all perfectly clear. Just be honest, be direct, and make it clear how important it is that depression is treated as an illness.
That’s the crucial thing, isn’t it? Depression is an illness, a medical problem, and we have to act accordingly. Anyone who speaks publicly about it will tell you: you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to “just snap out of it”; you wouldn’t tell a cancer patient to “just cheer up”; why should you treat depression any differently?
You shouldn’t, of course. It’s just an illness, and that’s how you should treat it, and I will tell you that over and over and over again.
But I’m a hypocrite. Completely and utterly. A fraud. Because after all those fine-sounding words, I just don’t treat depression like any other illness. And in my experience, nobody else does either. And I still haven’t figured out why.
Why, when I get together with friends and family, can’t I talk about depression like a medical problem? There are medical problems more terrifying and dreadful than depression – heart disease, cancer, any number of vicious diseases that can change, and end, lives. But they don’t carry the stigma when it comes to conversation that depression does.
People with cancer can tell their friends they have cancer. It might be terribly upsetting for all concerned, but you won’t feel ashamed for having it, and you won’t be afraid of …
What? What am I afraid of? The fear seems amorphous, impossible to define. I don’t expect my family and friends to abandon me, or tell me to shut up, so what do I expect? I’m not sure. All I know is, I can’t call my sister and say, “My depression was playing up over the weekend.”
I can’t sit in the pub and describe my symptoms to a group of friends as if I’m telling them about the time I had my knee operation. I can’t announce to my workmates that I’m suffering a panic attack, the way I would if it was an asthma attack. It’s just too hard.
But why is this? Why is it so hard? It’s not like I deny that depression is an illness. I preach that gospel every chance I get. But I don’t practise it. Neither does anyone else I know. Saying it’s a medical issue is easy. Acting like it’s a medical issue is hard.
And I think that’s because when we say it’s an illness like any other, we’re in denial. We desperately want to believe it. We desperately hope that we can act like it’s a medical issue. And we desperately wish to be able to sit down with a friend and talk about our depression the way we’d talk about the flu. That would make things so much easier, because talking about it can make it easier.
I’ve eased my pain so often this way – but I’ve done it by blogging, writing, public speaking, talking about it to strangers more than my own friends and family. Somehow, broadcasting my mental illness to the world seems more natural than chatting about it over a cup of tea. It’s ridiculous.
But it just goes to show, depression is different. It’s not like having a cold or a stomachache. It’s not even like having cancer. It’s its own strange beast, undoubtedly an illness, but one that twists and distorts your brain so that you’re convinced it’s more than an illness.
For example, I’ve never heard of an MS sufferer who seriously considers the possibility that while everyone else suffers from MS due to a disorder of the nervous system, they personally suffer from it just because they deserve it.
But that’s exactly how I feel about my depression: I can’t shake the haunting possibility that for me, depression isn’t an illness; that I’m that one guy who suffers from depression just because I’m genuinely an awful person and I’m just smart enough to recognise it. That’s no everyday illness there.
Similarly, there is the issue of guilt. And the issue of shame. I suffer from horrific panic attacks, and equally horrific depressive episodes, where I sink into a mental pit and just sit there for a while, cursing myself. After any of these episodes, it is quite likely I’ll be overwhelmed by a wave of guilt and shame, a sort of second invasion force, securing the beachheads that the panic and depression first stormed. Guilt for the trouble and heartache I cause my loved ones, and shame for my weakness at succumbing to the illness. It’s awful.
Funnily enough, those feelings of guilt and shame don’t strike me following an attack of hayfever, or a bad headache. There’s no “why did you do that, you idiot?” attached to a bout of gastro.
No, depression is an illness, but it’s an extraordinary one. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it openly, without guilt or shame, but it will always be intensely difficult, and it’ll take a lot of work to get to that point. Not just individually, but as a society.
We need to reach a point where friends can talk about their depression without fear, and without stress, and without feeling like we’re drowning in awkwardness.
But right now we’re not there, and I can’t go around pretending being depressed is just another way of being sick. It’s a special category – it’s easier than other illnesses and harder, better to live with and worse, a minor inconvenience and an all-consuming, crippling burden.
And I would love to buy you a drink and tell you about it sometime. But first you’re going to have to tell me how.
If you or anyone you know, is experiencing depression, immediate sources of help are listed on the MHFA website here.