“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
“THAT’S YOUR DEPRESSION TALKING,” my bewildered psychiatrist said as I sat on the couch in his office. I had spent the past several minutes telling him that I wasn’t getting better, that my medications were not working, and that I just needed to accept this unhappy reality. His encouraging words, so full of hope and optimism, were actually making me feel worse. Several days later, when my mood lifted, I realized we had been trying to communicate in different languages. His was the language of light, optimism, and hope. Mine darkness, cynicism, and hopelessness. We were like travelers from opposite countries, standing in a sinking ship, trying desperately in our disparate tongues to forge a plan of survival.
I’ve come to understand that depression is a second language, a language of paradox. Words spoken to the depressed are often understood exactly opposite of what the speaker intended. Think of it as giving a loved one with a physical injury a Vicodin that intensifies the pain. I’ve learned that when I’m depressed, the usual healthy slogans become bad medicine. “Think positive.” “Don’t give up.” “You can do it.” These are wonderful words that have the paradoxical effect of darkening my mind. The language of depression is such that it will only confirm a negative self-perception and a dismal outlook on life. Its dark and self-loathing filter, makes positive words at best incomprehensible, at worst, harmful.
This is not to say that encouraging words should never be spoken to those in the grip of depression. But knowing that these words may have the opposite effect helps us make more informed choices when communicating with those we care about. Below are some examples of how my depressed mind might translate otherwise supportive and encouraging statements. Keep in mind these are interpretations of my own depressed mind, and like so many aspects of mental illness, they are largely subjective.
TRANSLATING INTO THE LANGUAGE OF DEPRESSION
“Just think positive.” My depressed mind hears, “It’s your fault you feel so bad.”
“Go get some exercise.” My depressed mind hears, “You are so lazy.”
“Be strong.” My depressed mind hears, “You are so weak.”
“Lighten up.” My depressed mind hears, “The things you worry about are not important.”
“Say a prayer.” My depressed mind hears, “This is your fault because you have ignored God.”
“You’re in control of how you feel.” My depressed mind hears, “You’re choosing to feel bad. Your depression is not real.”
“Many successful people have a mental illness.” My depressed mind hears, “Compared to others, you are so weak and inadequate.“
“Everybody has challenges.” My depressed mind hears, “You’re weak, selfish, and irresponsible.”
“What do you have to be depressed about?” My depressed mind hears, “You’re depressed because you don’t appreciate your family, friends, health, and all the good things in your life. You’re just spoiled.”
“You have so much to be grateful for.” My depressed mind hears, “You’re so ungrateful.”
“Don’t give up.” My depressed mind hears, “If you quit, you’re a failure.”
My wife, bless her, is becoming proficient in the elusive language of my Bipolar and depressive illness. She is mindful of the verbal, physical, and emotional cues that are key to learning any language. There is no judgement from her, but a sincere attempt to observe, listen, and understand the cultural and linguistic expressions of mental illness. Her emotional bilingualism, which enables her to communicate effectively with both my depressed and non-depressed mind, has been instrumental to my gradual recovery. For that, I am grateful.