I can’t be arsed

Simon Ellis | December 19, 2018

There’s a bittersweet irony that the topic of mental health has taken such a long time to rise to the forefront of our consciousness. It still has a way to go before it reaches a level of proper understanding though. Especially for those who suffer.

I’m no expert myself but I can speak from experience. I had a kind of epiphany or a ‘coming out to myself’ of sorts about four years ago when I finally got to a point where I felt so bloody glum all the time I realised it was not ‘normal’. It wasn’t just work I couldn’t be arsed with, it was broadly the hours between waking up and going back to bed again. And let’s be clear here; on paper, I had absolutely no reason to be glum. In fact, bar a pair of corduroy bellbottoms and a flower-power shirt, I had every reason to be skipping barefoot through the grass belting out Let the Sunshine In: an amazing wife, wonderful kids, great family; lovely home, my own business and my health. In fact, I’d not long recovered from a pretty serious operation to remove a (thankfully benign) tumour in my noggin. Happy times.

And yet I can only describe getting through each day as akin to being stuck in thick, sticky mud and not having the will to even try to move your feet. You kind of just grind to a halt staring at your legs. And when someone looks at you askance before cautiously asking: “You OK?” You look up and pull your face in to a smile and say, “Yeah! Great! You?” And as soon as they’ve gone you realise your cheeks are cramping from the effort.

The really tough thing with depression isn’t necessarily the ‘down’ itself. In fact, I know I’m not alone in often feeling steadier in that zone because it can be more familiar than levity: when things are good you live with the nagging discomfort of knowing it isn’t going to last. Everyone feels calmer when the expected happens.

When things are good you live with the nagging discomfort of knowing it isn’t going to last. Everyone feels calmer when the expected happens.

The really tough thing is to define what sort of assistance would work when you’re there. And that can make being a friend to someone with depression really difficult. Of course friends want to help, but asking: “Are you OK?” Isn’t necessarily that helpful. How does anyone respond to that question in Britain? “Yep, great. Just great. All good here. Nothing to report.”

And then there’s: “How are you feeling, you know, in yourself?” This is really lovely because it’s said with such care, but by its very inflection it suggests my depression is a shared secret. I am proud of my ability to make it through the every-day stuff, as director, consultant, husband and dad, while carrying depression’s added weight on my shoulders, so I don’t really want to speak of it in hushed tones. I am not weak because I get depressed, I am strong despite it. I am strong to spite it.

I am not weak because I get depressed, I am strong despite it. I am strong to spite it.

I quite like matter-of-factness – pragmatism – as an approach, maybe because of my Design Thinking background or maybe because it simply acknowledges the problem without making a paper doily of it first: “How’s your mental health this morning, Si?”

“Ah, not so great to be honest. I might be a bit quiet today.”

“Roger that. Let me know if you want a break to talk shite for a while.”

“Will do. Much appreciated.”

Yeah, that works for me. But it won’t work for everyone, and that’s why talking about these things is so utterly crucial. We can help those burdened by mental health challenges but not by pretending we can carry their weight. It’s not like asking Luke Skywalker to pass Yoda over for a spell. Depression, thankfully, is not transferrable like that. It’s intensely personal and importantly, not a reflection on those people closest to the sufferer.

Similarly, I’m not looking for suggestions for how to make it better either. I can remember early in our marriage my wife would come home from a tough day at work and download about someone who had pissed her off, and I’d nip upstairs, pull on tights and a cape and reappear in the kitchen ready to solve her problem for her. Eventually, without a great deal of delicacy, my wife told me she didn’t want me to solve her problem – she was, of course, more than capable of doing that herself – she just wanted me to listen, to nod, to pour the wine, and agree he was an asshole.

Now you can definitely pour me wine, and you can listen, but if I’m tangled in the clingfilm wrap of depression I’m not going to be able to go for a walk in the sunshine and even if I could, I would only resent the sun for shining.

If I’m tangled in the clingfilm wrap of depression I’m not going to be able to go for a walk in the sunshine and even if I could, I would only resent the sun for shining.

I thought when I started writing this that I wouldn’t have any top tips to offer, but I think maybe I do:

  1. Don’t take it personally. Depression is intensely personal – it’s not a reflection on you.
  2. Depression can be made worse by a suggestion. Most depressives have already spoken to their doctor, seen a counselor, started taking meds, been on a diet, cut down on alcohol, increased their exercise, got a stand-up desk, reduced their screen time, left social media, reduced how much news they listen to, started reading books again, reduced their caffeine and switched to cotton underwear. No? Only me, huh? But still, who wouldn’t be depressed after trying all those things anyway?
  3. Depressives have felt, or will continue to feel guilty about being depressed. I’m a privileged white male with a happy home life, a big Audi and I fly microlights at the weekend. What the hell have I got to be depressed about? That’s not how depression works – depression is chemistry – but that’s how it feels, and depressives might feel that’s what people are thinking when they look at them. So in your care, deal with the symptoms rather than the cause.
  4. Silence is golden. There’s a difficult silence and then there’s a comfortable silence and I think we can all tell the difference. Depressives don’t want to be the cause of any tension around them, but they might just want to be left alone for a while.
  5. If you don’t know how to be around someone with depression, it’s probably best to simply ask them. “I want to make sure I’m not making things worse for you. Can you help me get the balance right? I want to learn.” It’s not wise to ask someone to ask someone to ask them. That turns someone’s pain into other people’s gossip.

I hope that’s helpful, I really do. Please feel free to get in touch and continue the discussion though.

 

Lastly, I’d like to dedicate this with a huge thank you to my wonderful wife, Charlie, who has bottomless compassion and endless will to understand.

Thanks for reading.

Si