Bad advice on handling depression, courtesy of Louise, my Inner Shithead

I don't call it "depression", "anxiety", "the black dog" or "the horrid ground weaver" - which is the name of an actual spider and clearly an amazing name for any mental illness. But I wasn't feeling particularly clever the day I dubbed mine my Inner Shithead.

She's also known as Louise, because Louise is my middle name and she kinda looks like me. Well, a sexier, shinier-haired, slimmer and entirely heinous version of me, sitting at the end of my bed, pointing out VERY RATIONALLY how utterly pointless everything is, or having me assemble backup plans in the event of various life-changing horrors (cancer, sudden death of a loved one, divorce, framed for murder, one of my cats choking on a chicken bone, and various terrifying scenarios involving autocorrect).

Everything she says has an exclamation point, too, like one of those cheery VOs on Nickelodeon. "Hey! Guess what! Literally NO ONE likes you!", or, "OMG you'll never guess what I've realised! You're definitely going to get cancer! Like, DEFINITELY!" or, "Your hair is falling out of your head!" or, "You haven't heard from your friend [insert name here] since Monday, so she's probably DEAD!"

Annoyingly, she does get some things right. She was right when she told me my father-in-law wasn't answering his emails because he was dead. She was right about Trump and Brexit, and if you temper her advice with some reality, love and optimism, it can be upgraded from "meanest thing you can say" to "not a bad way to live your life".

So here is the advice I would give you when I'm in a hole dug by Louise, my sexy Inner Shithead, tempered by the advice I'd give you when I'm climbing out of it.

Don't tell anyone you have depression!

I have followed this advice for years, and it has served me well / very poorly indeed. I'm still terrified of how I'll be perceived if I admit my brain is not always my ally. I was once asked to write a column for a very prestigious magazine when I was in the middle of a pretty awful bout of depression. I should have just said I was sick. But, in keeping with the rest of society, I didn't think depression counted as ill and tried to "think my way out of it" exactly the way you don't with gastroenteritis. I wrote a truly shite piece, and the editor very kindly just never mentioned it again (I hope there aren't, like, nine editors reading this thinking, "she must mean me"). I couldn't bring myself to email her saying, "Hey, sorry about that piece not being up to scratch, I was writing it through a haze of disconnected thoughts about the death of all humanity and the certainty that literally nothing good will ever happen again." 

When I eventually decided to open up and tell someone, I did so to the wrong person. She was a work colleague, the kind of woman you would call "an old battleaxe" and she'd call you a cunt then buy you a drink. She herself had suffered terribly with mental illness over the years and I admired how she talked about it freely, without a hint of the shame and fear that still grips me when the subject comes up.

One day, one particularly difficult day, a day on which Louise had woken up with a face like a smacked (but still sexy) arse, I just blurted it out. That my hands kept seizing up in panic over nothing at all. That I was losing chunks of time to dissociation. When I told her this, thinking she would understand because of her own experiences with mental health issues, she did not look sympathetic, or even like she related. She looked at me like I'd told her I was stashing Justin Bieber in my wardrobe and I was sick of him peeing in my shoes.

Ok, what I actually mean is...

Choose who you tell based on who cares about you – not on who you think will understand. Mental health issues come in many colours, stripes and stains, so your suffering may be completely different from theirs. Also, while it's great that more and more people are sharing their stories, suffering from mental illness does not automatically bestow anyone with the gifts of a therapist, much less the duties of one. What was I thinking? That because she had shared her troubles with the world she would automatically want to bump involuntarily-clenched fists and say, "Crippling anxiety, amirite?"

Talk to someone you're close to. Someone who loves you. Someone whose day would be ruined knowing you're in trouble.

NB. I would make a list of these people when you're not depressed, and make a note that your Inner Shithead will tell you they all secretly hate you. Ignore her. She's the worst.

You're not crazy: things actually are terrible!

I saw Susan Calman at a book reading last year, and she said, "If a depressed person had been running Lehman Brothers there wouldn't have been a crash, because they would have said, 'don't do that because something awful will happen', and they'd have been right." It's true. The world is frequently just terrible enough to make depressed people look like prophetic geniuses. That's what happens when you don't have optimism making you stupid. 

Ok, what I actually mean is...

Don't let people blame your illness every time you're upset or despairing about something, even if your reaction to it is, shall we say, exaggerated. I may be curled up in a ball on the floor trying to come up with the best method for a murder-sui in the event of a nuclear winter, and I admit that's probably jumping the gun - but Trump really is terrifying. Climate change really is killing people. Things really are scary. Don't let optimists wave off all your fears as the ramblings of your Inner Shithead just because there's no diagnosis for their chronic cheeriness. 

Your depression will ALWAYS come back!

Louise got control of my computer there for a second. She's saying that most people will, at some point, have a bout of depression, and if you're prone to it then it may indeed keep coming back like herpes.

Ok, what I actually mean is... 

It's transient. Meaning the horror of this moment will go away, eventually. Either by itself, or with medication, or therapy, or whatever you use to soothe yourself. Even if you're stuck with it for life, no one episode is permanent.

This is something it's important to repeat, I find, because the one fixture of any low period for me is the certainty that this time, it's forever. Which is absurd, if you think about it. Imagine getting a runny nose and thinking "Ah, shit - I guess this is just how my nose is now. What a rubbish thing to be stuck with until the day I die." Sure, your immune system tends to do a better job with a cold than depression, but depression can be just as transient. It gets better. Then worse. Then better. Then worse. Then better. Then better, Then, hopefully, even better.

No one cares that you're "doing better" now!

Don't run around telling everyone you know you're "doing better" after your depression. They barely noticed you were flailing because the only outward symptoms were you being weird at lunch that time and that you stopped tweeting (which, actually, no one ever notices - which is why it's so fascinating that so many people feel the need to tweet "sorry I haven't tweeted lately". Oh yeah, it's been awful.)

Ok, what I actually mean is... 

Celebrate the shit out of your mental health victories, even if you have to do so alone. (Note to self: must finally learn to moonwalk) It deserves a celebration, if only for the memory to serve as some shred of evidence that victories happen.

Early last year, I was watching TV and realised with complete and utter certainly that I was definitely going to fail at everything. "Wow," I thought, "this is terribly sad, but it's almost a relief. No more striving, no more worrying, no need to try at anything.  Except, am I going to break it to my parents? They won't believe me, they'll think I'm just being pessimistic. Ugh. It's so irritating that no one believes me when I tell them things I know about the future. I'm kind of a prophetic genius, really..."

I gasped. An actual, out loud, soap-opera gasp. I grabbed the remote, switched off the TV and told my husband, triumphant as a mediocre white man who's performed an ordinary task, about my realisation. He was baffled as to why this horrible thought was good news.

"Because that level of certainty about the future is impossible!" I beamed.

"Right..." his eyes were wide with confusion and concern. 

"So it's not real. The certainty isn't real. So it probably isn't even true!"

"Of course it's not true."

"Yeah yeah, I'm going to succeed at things, blah-di-blah – the point is, I know it's just depression and not fact! I CAUGHT it!"

He high-fived me, because he is awesome. But if he'd shrugged and switched the TV back on, I would have high-fived myself. Yes, I realise that is basically just a clap, or a tried-and-tested method for murdering a mosquito, but the point is I would have celebrated. Because even though I was telling him "you are living with someone who can be suddenly and entirely convinced that her life is over in the middle of an episode of Gilmore Girls", what I was really saying is, "I caught it this time. I know it's lying. So this time at least, it can't gut me."


Image by Helen M. Farrell