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Oct 26 2012

Living With Depression: Openness

Earlier I decided to write a series of posts about depression beyond the DSM diagnosis. The first post was about trust. Here’s the second.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to two diametrically opposed views on openness–how much people should share with their partners, friends, and acquaintances about themselves.

The first view, which my family taught me and which various traditional views on interpersonal relationships tend to promote, is that people should reveal as little of themselves to others as possible. Openness is at best a sign of naiveté because ultimately people will misuse any personal information you give them if they have the opportunity.

Furthermore, people should not “burden” their friends and partners by telling them about their problems. Until a partner has literally married you, they may leave you at any moment if you talk about your feelings too much, so it’s best to avoid it until you’ve got them safely ensnared in matrimony. If you must tell someone, tell your family.

The other view was the one I discovered among my progressive friends. In this view, openness is a virtue. You don’t merely have the option of being open about your feelings–in fact, you should be.

You should tell your friends when they accidentally do something that hurts you. You should be open with your partner(s) about how they make you feel. You should use “I” statements. You should, as Captain Awkward wisely advises, “use your words.”

Of course, I agree with this second view, not the first one. Or, at least, I agree with it in theory.

The truth is that when you have depression, your feelings don’t fit into the boxes they’re supposed to fit in. Sometimes, with enough patience on your part and enough openmindness on your friend’s part, you can bridge that gap of understanding, but it’s hard. I’ve been able to do it to some extent because I happen to be a great writer. But not everybody is, and neither are we always able to relegate these things to writing. Sometimes you have to have these difficult conversations in person, and in those situations, trust me–I flail and grasp at words just as much as anyone else.

What happens when you try to be open about your feelings, but your feelings are so alien and “wrong” that they don’t make sense to anyone?

Lots of frustration.

When my feelings involve only myself, it’s not so bad. I don’t think my friends truly understand what I mean when I say that seeing pictures of my family frequently makes me extremely upset (not in the trigger-y way, but more in the “fuck, I haven’t seen these people for months but I don’t want to go home and see them I am a terrible person fuck fuck” kind of way? See, it’s hard.). They probably wouldn’t understand if I told them that sometimes I grieve for random old memories as if they were people, even though I didn’t even enjoy those moments at the time, and that sometimes I feel as though I would give up years of my life just to go back in time and relive a single day of high school, even though I hated high school.

But that’s not such a big deal, because ultimately those feelings involve only me, or people that my friends will likely never meet. I can talk about them without feeling like my current relationships hinge on my ability to make myself understood.

Where my feelings involve the people currently in my life is where things get difficult. Sometimes–generally when I’m already having a bad day–something someone says bothers me a lot for no apparent reason. Sometimes I get jealous of things I shouldn’t. Sometimes someone gets a bit snappy with me and rather than assuming that they’re just stressed, I assume that they hate me. Sometimes I get another “sup” IM and I get furious because I’m already so busy and stressed and why can’t people just leave me alone unless they want to have a real conversation. (Welcome to introversion.)

I am aware that the Correct Thing to do in our sort of crowd is to Talk About It and be open about my Needs and all those other cliches. I am quite aware.

If I were a neurotypical person, maybe I would feel like I have that option.

But the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.

Furthermore, the more I talk about Feelings That Don’t Make Sense, the more I make myself sound like, well, a crazy person. Most people aren’t used to the idea that you don’t need to understand something to respect it. (Damn, I link to that article a lot.) They want to know about my feelings, but they also need to understand them. Sometimes I can’t explain them. Sometimes they can’t understand them.

So, more often than not, I choose not to disclose my negative feelings, not even when they involve another person I’m very close to. The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it, even though I feel like I “should” be open about how I feel.

And all of this is very confusing for me, because I obviously do feel that openness in close relationships is a good thing. And maybe someday I’ll discover the magic combination of words that will allow me to be open about how I feel without causing defensiveness, hurt feelings, and confusion.

But for now, living with the remnants of depression ensures that there is a sort of chasm between me and everyone else that can’t really be crossed no matter how open I am.

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  1. 1
    Ben Stansfield

    “The likelihood of being understood is so low and the likelihood of starting an argument is so high that it’s not worth it”

    This is something that took me many many years to understand. I’m only now realizing that people don’t really want to know how I’m feeling, despite what they say. They might really feel that they do, but they’re wrong, and it’s usually my feelings that pay the price.
    I don’t think being closed is the ‘right’ way to do things, but I don’t believe that the support is out there for being so open. The alternative is me being open, while juggling all sorts of concerns about how the other person might be perceiving what I’m saying, and then the whole thing ends up being about them, rather than openness about what I’m going through.
    And, not to be too down (I’m not really down about this), but I don’t really believe that they can help me with what I’m feeling, at least in my experience, and I’ve know some pretty exceptional people.

  2. 2
    ResearchToBeDone

    “the burden of trying to explain my mental quirks to everybody I interact with regularly is one that I can’t even fathom, let alone take on.

    For starters, people get defensive. I’ll say something like, “This is not your fault and it’s probably just because of my depression, but when you sign off in the middle of a serious conversation, I feel hurt,” and they hear “YOU ARE HURTING ME YOU TERRIBLE FUCKING PERSON.” Or they hear, “I expect you to change your IM habits to conform to my needs.” And they respond accordingly.”

    Would you mind if I quoted you on this in a post I’m writing about how inadequate our vocabulary for distinctions like these is?

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Go for it! :)

  3. 3
    Another view

    I just discovered this blog through Tumblr, and I know you don’t care about a random passer-by’s views, but this post was interesting because I’m reading it as a non-depressed person (albeit someone with another mental illness– generalized anxiety disorder) with a family history of depression and suicide. A close friend of mine is deeply depressed and often shoves me away, the same way my relative who committed suicide did before he died. And thanks to those experiences, I had to say something about the way this post seems to blame people who know the depressed person for not “getting it.” It’s true that we can’t really “get” it, but we are TRYING to get it. We are trying VERY hard to get it. We are there for you if you want to talk. We are there for you when you get mad at us. We are there even when you push us away. And we are not without our own struggles, though they may not seem as important to you as your depression does.

    That’s all I wanted to say. I know this post will probably annoy you but I wish more depressed people would consider what it feels like for their friends and relatives to be on the receiving end of all this. Sorry.

    1. 3.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I’m really not sure where you’re getting all this. At no point did I blame anyone for not understanding me, and I certainly did not suggest that the struggles of my non-depressed friends and family don’t “seem as important” to me as my depression. How do you know I don’t consider what it feels like for my friends and relatives? I consider that every damn day. In fact, this entire post is about how I don’t want to inundate them with information about my feelings because I don’t want to frustrate them. And, perhaps more to the point, I haven’t always had supportive friends like you are to your friend with depression. I haven’t always had friends who were willing to try to understand.

      Furthermore, this is a blog written from the perspective of someone with depression, not someone who’s healthy but has friends and family with depression. Of course your perspective is important, but it’s not my experience. Why would I write about an experience I’ve never had?

      I’m sorry for everything you’ve had to deal with, but I think you’re making a few unwarranted assumptions about my life, my relationships, and the way I think about depression and its effects on others.

  4. 4
    DubsCK

    My partner is learning about this, most definitely. We’re learning key words like “It’s not you, it’s me”, which is really cliche, but it’s a convenient short hand for “Yes, I just got triggered/upset, but I acknowledge it has more to do with my bullshit than with you. You did nothing wrong, but I’m letting you know why my demeanor changed, and giving you fair warning that I am now an emotional mine field. I still love you, but you should probably go away until I finish processing this shitty feeling.”

  5. 5
    Butterflywings

    Thanks for writing this, yet again (I will save you the ‘thanks and I totally agree’ comments on every post you have written, but imagine it ;-)), you have articulated how I feel. ESPECIALLY the bit about people being defensive. Most people do this, no matter how tactful I try to be, no matter how much I make clear it’s *my* issue. They hear an accusation and react as if I have said ‘You are a terrible mean person’ and then *they* get hurt and angry and it becomes about them, which just makes me feel guilty (and as a depressive, that’s all I need, more guilt). And yet the same people seem to expect to be able to tell me if I’ve upset them. Gah. It does make me very reluctant to share my feelings.

  1. 6
    Things There Should Be Words For: Types of Anger | Research to be Done

    [...] To introduce this first one, I’m going to quote Miriam at Brute Reason talking about one difficult aspect of dealing with depression: [...]

  2. 7
    Living With Depression: Strength » Brute Reason

    [...] The two previous posts, if you’re curious, were about trust and openness. [...]

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