Don’t Ask

One of my colleagues has been talking about me.

‘Kathleen’s going through a bit of a rough patch. Let her alone.’

‘But maybe I can do something -‘

‘No. Leave her alone.’

‘But I don’t want her thinking that she’s upset me…’

‘Doesn’t matter. Leave her alone.’

And so on. It is the best thing that anyone has ever done to help with my depression.

‘But I was just going to ask her if she was OK!’

‘Don’t. No, seriously, don’t ask.’

‘Are you OK?’ is a terrible question. At least, it is a terrible question to ask me, and people whose brains work like my brain does.

(There are probably people for whom it is not a terrible question. Depression works differently for different people. This is how it works for me, which is why I am writing this.)

‘Are you OK?’

There are various possible answers.

‘Yes, I’m fine.’ This is usually the easiest option. It is a lie. Lying is tiring, particularly when you have to keep doing it.

What I really mean is, ‘No, I’m not OK, but I do not want to talk about it.’ Or, possibly, ‘No, I’m not OK, but I do not want to talk to you about it.’

It can backfire, particularly if it’s obvious that you’re not OK. ‘Yes, I’m fine, I just happen to be crying. Onions. That’s what it is. Onions. Don’t worry.’

Some people will see through that. They will say things like, ‘Oh, but you’re clearly not OK. Tell me what the matter is!’

I dislike dealing with these people. I do not want to tell them what the matter is. I probably do not even want to tell my closest friends what the matter is. I don’t even know myself what the matter is. These people are not my closest friends. They only want to help. But they can’t help, and I would just like them to accept that and go away.

Some people will see through both layers. They will see that I am not OK, and they will also see that I do not want to talk about it. They will then drop the subject. I like these people. The only way they could improve upon this would be to have not asked the question in the first place.

Alternatively, there is the Typical British Understatement, gently implying that things aren’t very good, but no, you don’t really want to talk about it. ‘Oh, you know, mustn’t grumble.’ ‘Could be worse.’ ‘Surviving.’ ‘Don’t ask.’

This can work. In my family, for example, ‘X is a bit down’ is widely understood to mean ‘X is finding it difficult to get out of bed without crying, and this is why they haven’t phoned for weeks’. But it relies very much upon everybody knowing the code.

The trouble is, the people who only want to help interpret understatement as an invitation to delve deeper. ‘Don’t ask,’ you say, and you mean it, but they ask. ‘Surviving,’ you say. ‘Only surviving?’ And then you have to go into the whole bloody thing.

Or there’s the plain truth. ‘I am feeling absolutely rubbish. My mind is working at the speed that stalactites form, and I am convinced that everybody hates me.’

And people just don’t know what to say to that. Why should they? I don’t have anything particularly useful to say about it myself. They want to make things better. So do I. But they can’t. And it is a terrible truth to have to tell them.

I am an introvert. This does not necessarily mean that I’m shy (though sometimes I am) or that I’m anti-social (though sometimes I just can’t face it). All it means is that interactions cost me energy.

In the ordinary way, this isn’t a problem. I can keep talking to someone for twenty minutes or so and feel no ill-effects, the same way that I can keep cycling for twenty minutes or so. Depression knocks that out. Depression kills the auto-pilot. This morning, cycling to the station, I found I was getting slower and slower. I had forgotten to pedal. I have to think about every pedal stroke.

Same with talking. The automatic processes that go into a conversation, which usually happen without thinking, reveal themselves in all their complexity, and have to be done manually. Where in the ordinary way I might say ‘Good night – hope you enjoy your day off!’ without thinking, today I had to a) remind myself that the appropriate thing to do when one leaves the office is to wish one’s colleagues good night; b) remember that it is Thursday; c) deduce that tomorrow therefore must be Friday; d) guess that it’s therefore probably someone’s day off; e) remember who has Fridays off; f) say ‘Good night – enjoy your day off!’.

Extrapolate the corresponding effort required to answer the question ‘Are you OK?’

Talking is an effort. Talking about how broken my brain is can be impossible. And yet people will not stop asking.

This is why I hate well-intentioned mental health campaigns that encourage people to ask other people how they are. I have no desire to disclose the parlous state of my mind to a complete stranger or to someone else’s manager. Judging by the internet-wide reaction to the Samaritans Radar initiative, I don’t think I’m the only one.

Samaritans Radar wasn’t the only one, either. It was the most egregious, largely because of the way it tried to use the internet, but there are plenty of others. There are two posters pinned up in the staff kitchen at this very moment, encouraging people to ask colleagues how they are. I might vandalise them. The posters, not the colleagues. Probably.

And if colleagues are bad, then strangers are worse. I have a thing about loud or repetitive noises. On a good day they don’t bother me. On a bad day I want to kill people who use the hand dryers in public lavatories. I remember one day last year when things had got particularly bad, and the sound of footsteps on gravel was too much for me. I couldn’t deal with it at all. This was a problem, because you have to cross a lot of gravel to get to the bike racks at Cambridge station. And it was rush hour, so I wasn’t the only person going CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH across the gravel, there were lots of people doing it, and I had no control over it, and no control over the noise, and it made me cry. So there I was, hiding behind a tangled stack of other people’s bikes, howling into my scarf, and thinking, well, at least that godawful Time To Talk thing was yesterday, so nobody feels obliged to ask if I’m OK.

I dread it. It’s the worst thing about crying in public. I have given up caring what people think about me, but I really can’t deal with their talking to me. They want to hellllllp. Bully for them, but the thing is, it won’t actually help. It will actively make things worse for me, and I resent having to have things made worse for me just so some random can feel better about themselves. The story of the heroic intervention is widespread and, at least in my case, bullshit.

People want to be that one person whose action made a difference, and they don’t like accepting the fact that actually there isn’t a difference to make, or that they’re not the person to make it.

It is good to know that people care, yes. And it is true that a depressed brain will make up all sorts of ridiculous stories about how people don’t care. But people constantly going out of their way to show me that they care can be exhausting and guilt-inducing. Courtesy costs nothing, they say, but that’s not true. Courtesy is a currency in which I am currently bankrupt, and every thank you I have to say, every response to a Facebook u ok hun, pushes me deeper into the red.

When I come out the other side – and I will; I always have before – I will be thankful for my friends, and I will recognise the earnest enquiries for the acts of love that they represent. But at the moment the friends who are helping me the most are the ones who understand that actually what I need to do tonight is to stay in bed and reread Agatha Christie novels while they bring me a slice of cake home from the party I was too much of a state to go to, the ones who are gamely pretending that nothing is wrong, the ones who accept my laconic explanation ‘brain slugs’ without question, the ones who let me cry on them without trying to make it better.

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