One of the consequences of suffering intermittently from depression, is that sometimes my perceptions are wonky. There are days when I can only see the bad stuff, the dangers, the trouble. I’m not especially paranoid, I don’t tend to imagine problems that do not exist. It’s about my ability to see an overall balance and to be able to find and make good bits amongst the hard stuff.
I am blessed with a number of people who make it their business to challenge me, when I get like this. They do so warmly, reminding me of alternative perspectives, of things I’ve done well or could feel good about, and that input reliably helps me get back on top of things. Sometimes it takes a while. I value that gentle challenging as an expression of care, and if you’re one of the people who knows how to poke in kindly, timely ways, thank you. It makes a huge difference.
However, there are other schools of thought around how best to challenge people. There are those who will see a person struggling and turn up with helpful suggestions like these. Stop making a fuss, you’re not as badly off as someone who has some other problem. You just need to be more positive and it will all be fine. You are being ridiculous and selfish. You are attention seeking and vamping energy from other people. Quit whining and fix it!
The trouble is, this approach assumes that the problems are trivial and fixable. People don’t always express distress over the real problem – if your parents have dementia, maybe you would feel disloyal about talking in public about the loss of dignity and the challenges. Maybe a small problem breaks you, and you get kicked by these fake do-gooders for making a fuss, because they do not know and lack the imagination to consider they may be missing some things. Sheer weight of many small problems can also break a person, and fixing a thousand issues is a large, intimidating task. If you’re hurting, you are hurting and some other person saying they’d be fine in your shoes, solves nothing.
Problem two is that if you are depressed, your self esteem is low, and your confidence is low. Someone turns up and tells you that you are stupid and useless to feel this way. For the person who was suicidal already, this confirmation that you’re a waste of space can take you closer to not being able to function. Many suicidal people do not feel able to talk about it, and fear of being called melodramatic and attention seeking certainly doesn’t help. People who can’t talk are more likely to die.
What really gets me, is that the people who are in many ways most damaging to people in pain, claim to be believers in positive thinking. They claim to value optimism and a ‘good’ approach to life. In order to maintain this comfortable bubble, it is necessary to avoid hearing anything that might burst it. It’s easy to feel positive if you are snug, secure and privileged, and hard to hear that this may be more about luck and privilege than your innate worth. If you are willing to hear when others are suffering, you might feel some moral obligation to do something about it. If you can rubbish and dismiss them, your world view is in tact, you still feel morally superior and you don’t have to do anything at all! You can even demand positive feedback for having been so good and useful in telling them how it really is.
My patience with this is at an all-time low. If you genuinely care about positivity, you respond to pain by trying to encourage, uplift, support and enable people. I’ve seen it done beautifully by people whose belief in the power of being positive is not a cover for being shitty. It’s very easy to subvert the language of positivity into something destructive, and it’s worth watching for the people who do that. Generally, anyone who feels the need to tell you they were doing you a favour and you should be grateful, was probably not doing you a favour, and is not worth taking too seriously.