Six Cats and a Black Dog: The Dangerous Game of Assumptions… #mentalhealth
Last week I was indulging myself with a little bit of window shopping when I got collared by a demonstrator. She did that trick where they hold out a sample and when you – distracted but trying not to be rude – try to take it, they hold on and suddenly you’re in a conversation. Non-plussed but still trying not to be rude, I let her show me some beauty product – it obviously made a huge impact because I barely recall it! – until she looked down at my tummy and said, with rock-solid conviction, “Oh, you’re pregnant!”.
I’m not. A UK size 10 at 123 pounds, I’m embracing my summer wardrobe this year, having lost 12 pounds but even before the weight loss, I have never been asked that before. I don’t have a flat tum but nor is it a pronounced bump. I was shell-shocked. So much so that I left the demonstration before she’d finished (quite apologetically too, although I’d much rather have told this with a highfalutin flouncing off to recollect).
A Google search has led me to a slew of articles and shown me I am not alone. In fact, this is a frighteningly common experience, which forces me to conclude one thing: we make far too many assumptions about people. (It also suggests we should never ever voice the “You’re pregnant” assumption!)
Which leads me to my next point. She made assumptions about me based on what she thought she could see, but every day people make assumptions about people with invisible illnesses based on what they don’t see. Since my experience has been with anxiety and depression, I’ll be mostly talking about those but please feel free to share your own experiences in comments.
Just because someone is smiling, doesn’t mean they aren’t going through their own personal hell.
Just because their problems seem boring to you, doesn’t mean that a) they aren’t overwhelming to someone else or b) there isn’t much more that they’re feeling and are scared to share.
Some assumptions worth clearing up:
1) Depressed people enjoy being sad/playing the victim/being dramatic.
Um, no. Let me refer you to a section from an article I wrote for Terri Giuliano Long’s blog in 2013:
In 13 years of dealing with bouts of depression, my darkest moment is still easy to pinpoint. It was the day I woke up and knew I loved my husband but couldn’t feel it. Strange when you think that so many moments were more dramatic – more dangerous – but this, to me, epitomised everything that this disease can strip you of…
Fabulous feeling, right? They should market it! Why would anyone want to feel like that? Why would we enjoy it? Instead, don’t you think that on top of the many things we feel, there’s a staggering sense of sadness and regret for the pain we’ve caused other people, albeit unwittingly? Not even the worst masochist would enjoy that.
2) Depressed people are just wallowing/self-indulgent/making things worse for themselves sometimes.
How so? Oh, I see! You thought it should be a secret thing? That we should plaster a smile on our faces all the time and always be ‘fine’, even when we’re not? Because, um, that’s healthy.
Let me put this into context: day to day problems are something we can share and talk about because we know our listener will probably identify with them and hopefully not judge us. If we’re listened to on that stuff – not accused of being ‘moaning Minnies’ – we might actually feel brave enough to share some of the bigger stuff, the darker scarier stuff, the stuff you really need to hear. Judge us at the first step and how can we ever feel safe?
When you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. You are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalise everything, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps.
― Matt Haig,
I tell my husband pretty much everything about the day to day stuff but even he doesn’t hear all the stuff whirling in my head all the time. Sometimes I might share some terrifying thoughts a month or two after I’ve had a particularly dark day and – ahem – ‘indulged’ in them, sometimes immediately, sometimes not at all. As safe as I feel to talk to him about most things, there’s still a barrier of shame to overcome about some things. Don’t make that barrier higher.
3) Talking doesn’t help, so what’s the point? They should just get on with it.
Ever heard of talking therapies? Check the NHS website and one of the first things they suggest is turning to family and friends. Talking does help. Believe it or not, sometimes talking about something completely unrelated can help too. A listening ear, a sense of empathy, a feeling that the world isn’t quite so daunting – when sometimes even getting through a day seems unsurmountable, these things help.
Want to hear something truly scary?
In a 2001 University of Houston study of 153 survivors of nearly lethal attempts between the ages of 13 and 34, only 13 percent reported having contemplated their act for eight hours or longer. To the contrary, 70 percent set the interval between deciding to kill themselves and acting at less than an hour, including an astonishing 24 percent who pegged the interval at less than five minutes.
― NY Times: The Urge to End It All
I find myself wondering what those people who didn’t survive thought in those eight hours – or that hour, or those five minutes. I wonder if they had felt able to actually say to someone “I feel like that’s enough, I think I’m going to do this”, if it would have been a start to getting help. It might sound the easiest thing in the world to just open your mouth but, if the last time they said ‘I’m struggling to pay the gas bill’ they were met with rolled eyes – not this again – would they really have shared something so deep, so dark? Perhaps even darker, how lonely and desperate did the people who thought about it for months have to be, that they had no one they could tell, that fear of being judged was actually more insurmountable than fear of death? (Yes, fear of death. Read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive for a soberingly honest and moving perspective on this and other things.)
Talk. Listen. Encourage talking. Encourage listening. Keep adding to the conversation. Stay on the lookout for those wanting to join in the conversation. Keep reiterating, again and again, that depression is not something you ‘admit to’, it is not something you have to blush about, it is a human experience.
― Matt Haig,
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the people left behind. Many people with depression could be Oscar winners, we put on such an amazing performance. We have to. If there are days when it seems to take every bit of strength out of you to get up and brush your teeth and yet you still manage to go on and get to work, do the grocery shopping, eat a meal, have conversations – be human – you have to get pretty good at making things look real.
All I’m saying is don’t forget what’s inside and, when someone lets a crack show, leap all over the opportunity to find out what’s below the facade. Be thrilled that they are sharing something, instead of squirrelling it away. Be glad that they are talking, instead of just silently coping (or not, as the case may be).
Most of all, let’s stop making assumptions about what we think we see and what we think we don’t see. Let’s start listening to people and what they actually have to tell us instead.