Depression is a painful beast, dragging you down like an invisible force into a state of perceived nothingness. A friend once described her experience of depression like being stuck behind a glass panel, looking out upon the world but feeling strangely removed from reality. Sir Winston Churchill understood this very well, relating to his own depression as the black dog. Depression is real, but the invisibility of the illness frequently keeps it unseen, ignored and misunderstood.
A stranger’s bravery and guts spilt
I remember once being at a house warming party in my twenties, mingling with people who I didn’t know. I was engaged in small talk with guests, and noticed how a young woman sitting next to me was not talking with anyone. She had no expression on her face and looked out of place. So I started a conversation with her. As we so often do in new social settings, I introduced myself and asked her where she works. The response took me off guard as my new acquaintance launched into her battle with depression and her inability to work.
As this woman became more candid expressing what it felt like to be depressed, I became more and more uncomfortable. It was clear to see that her experience was real and she certainly did suffer but I didn’t really want to hear about it. I was starting to feel stuck with this woman, at a party where everyone was having a fun time. I was ready for a party, not for this kind of conversation with someone who I didn’t know.
Looking back now, I realize how brave that woman was to reach out to me. She was probably sitting at that party in a whole heap of pain and despair. Her pain so palpable, that she would spill her guts to a complete stranger. The invisibility of her depression meant that all guests at this party were blinded to her state of internal suffering. And yet, if she had come to the party and tripped down the stairs, injuring her leg, wouldn’t we have all flocked to help?
I now wonder if I attended that party tonight and sat next to the same woman, would I be less indifferent to her plight? Would I be better equipped to know how to handle her conversation? I think I can safely say yes because personal experience and education has changed me. And whilst my own dance with depression has hurt, it has blessed me with wisdom and empathy.
To the lady at the party, I’m sorry and this is what I have to say
If I was sitting with you tonight, I’d like to say: “Hey, I’m really sorry to hear that you are going through this. Thank you for sharing with me. This sounds really tough for you.” Then I’d pause and wait and listen. I wouldn’t interrupt, I wouldn’t change the topic and I wouldn’t be indifferent. I’d acknowledge you on your effort to get out of your house (your isolating chamber), to get dressed and attend the party despite how you felt.
I’d validate your experience with depression because I know it sucks and hurts. I would also very gently try and gauge any risk, by simply asking, “What keeps you going in life?” Knowing that sometimes, it can be something as simple as a beloved pet... Mostly, I’d hope to show you a small dose of love. I’m a big fan of the untapped healing that flows from a genuine well of love. I most certainly would refrain from giving you advice except to ask if you have some supports in your life or someone professional to talk to?
Perhaps then I’d try to distract you; invite you to go for a walk in the garden, smell the flowers, feel the breeze or taste some party food. This would help you to feel more grounded through your senses and get out of your head. Then as I returned to my own involvement in the party, I would catch your eye throughout the night and smile so you may not feel quite so invisible. Before I left the party, I’d check in with you and ask if you are okay.
R U OK? A simple conversation
There’s no perfect conversation in these situations but there are some helpful resources promoted by mental health organisations. Australia’s R U OK campaign is all about having a conversation that could change a life. Put simply, the R U OK initiative is equipping everyday people to start a conversation by following four steps (ruok.org.au):
1. Ask are you Ok?
3. Encourage Action
4. Check in
Real monsters of the mind
Given the pernicious and invisible nature of mental health illness, I wonder how people would respond if they saw a physical manifestation of mental health encounters? British illustrator, Toby Allen has profoundly captured mental illness in his creative project entitled ‘Real Monsters.’ (zestydoesthings.com). Imagine how the public’s perception of mental illness could change if they actually SAW depression with their own eyes - just like this Giant Floating Purple Monster, depicted by Allen!
I believe some answers to mental health illness are found in keeping the illness visible by having a conversation. It is possible; others have done it, just like the stranger at my party. I close my eyes and envision the great Churchill, forging extraordinary steps of leadership in leading his country, with a stark black dog in tow. What an inspiration!
Natalie is passionate about human rights issues, matters of the mind and interfaith insights. When not in deep thought, Natalie loves to travel, drink good coffee and keep fit where she resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
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