I hear it so often when a person who has experienced depression commits suicide. People are surprised.
He seemed to be doing better.
She was laughing more.
Look at the most recent photos. He looked so happy.
But depression isn’t something you can always detect on the surface like a rash or a broken arm. Shouldn’t all of us know by now that a Facebook/Instagram life is often nothing like the real thing? A tasty looking pizza pic is just that. And I haven’t had difficulty forcing a smile for the camera since those obligatory family photos of my adolescence. If anything, social media has only made us more practiced at faking it.
I recall the shock over Robin Williams’ death. Someone with such a frantic energy and the facility to make people laugh,…how could he? (I suspect he was bipolar.) Same thing when Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, took his life. The media posted pictures of him shortly before his death. I refused to look, but I surmised they were smiley images. How could there be such a mismatch between what’s inside and a broad smile or a robust laugh?
If we don’t dig, we don’t see. Public persona can hide the private agony. After all, we’ve been socialized to hide it. Stop being a downer, man.
The weekend before I was admitted to hospital in September, I went on a fifty-mile bike ride. I took in magnificent ocean and mountain views north of Vancouver. I appreciated my natural surroundings. Maybe I was even trying to pedal away dark feelings. To be sure, getting outside had been an ordeal. It took me two hours to get my socks on. The shock over Chester Bennington’s death gave me the wherewithal to snap pictures as I lay in bed, feeling utterly hopeless and helpless. Most shots didn’t have much in me in view. I didn’t have the energy to do any sort of posing or to even look and see if I was in frame. It was plenty just lifting the phone and pressing the button. Later, I deleted dozens of pics and was left with a few that honestly show how things were in the absence of a social media log-in.
This is depression. This is what it looks like when putting on a front gives way. This is the eve of my downfall. Things only got worse. The bike ride provided a reprieve; it didn’t fix anything.
If you know someone who has experienced clinical depression, all I can say is don’t make assumptions. Don’t read a hell of a lot into the thought, He looks good. People get good at covering up. In my experience, it’s rare for a person to continue to ask, “How are you?” and want anything more than the rote “Fine”. The question is synonymous with Hello.
It has to feel safe for someone to open up, not just once but on a continuing basis. It’s too easy for a person with depression to internalize things with What’s wrong with me? and Nobody cares. The default is, This is my burden. I go it alone. It’s ridiculously easy to fake fine. We’ve been socialized that way. It’s what’s expected. So there should be no surprise that someone’s depression goes unnoticed. There may be a period of genuine remission, but a resurgence is entirely possible, as with most afflictions.
Even when blurred by depression, a person’s suicide is his or her own action. I don’t believe in casting blame. That’s why it’s also referred to as taking one’s own life. The personal agency is at the heart of it. But people can do better with the check-ins for loved ones known to have mood disorders. Go beyond the how-are-you. Add, “No, really,…how are you?” Or name it. “Where are you at in terms of depression?” “What’s your mood been like?” “How well do you think you’re handling things?” These more specific questions venture beyond the hello. They show you care. You are prepared to talk about more than the warming weather, the slumping Blue Jays and how a gay skater won “Dancing with the Stars”.
For goodness sake, after asking an open-ended question, allow the person to have the time to respond. I’ve found that talk of mood disorders makes so many people skittish. A minute or two and it’s back to pulling out phones and photographing pizza. Do that and the chance your friend will open up in the future is significantly minimized. This kind of conversation makes a person feel extremely vulnerable. You’ve lost their trust. They can’t be brutally open only to be shut down halfway.
Ask. Then listen. Acknowledge. No advice necessary.That’s all.