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.

Faith, belief, doubt, and pedantry

I think, for me, there are two main elements to this: the way faith works for me in the context of my history of depression, and my religious background.

First, thought, it’s worth mentioning that I draw a distinction between faith and belief, and that I am acutely aware of the difference between knowledge and knowledge (why doesn’t English translate savoir and connaître properly?) – knowing intellectually, in the head, if you like, and knowing in the heart – the difference between knowing facts and knowing people.

Faith, for me, is not the same as belief. (This, I know, is not something that all Christians would agree on, but I am only talking, here and throughout, about one Christian.) I can remember a real lightbulb moment a few years ago, at one of my parish’s Lent Courses Where One Is Not Told The Answer, where somebody linked faith to trust rather than to belief, and I suddenly stopped feeling guilty about not believing hard enough. These days I think I would describe it as ‘relationship with the Divine’ and leave it at that.

I’m very Anglican. I am both catholic and protestant, and neither Catholic nor Protestant. My non-conformist streak is Quaker, and Quakers don’t conform with anything, particularly non-conformists. And I say all this because the thing about the very Protestant Churches that I was most glad to leave behind was their insistence on belief, the idea that one has to believe the right thing to be saved. It always felt all wrong to me.

I am finding increasingly as I get older (she says, from the ripe old age of 28) that what I believe is becoming less and less important. I don’t worry at all about whether other people are believing the right thing, whatever that is. My own belief has become less certain, and less defensive. I don’t know what I believe about all sorts of things, and that no longer seems to be a problem, except to other people. At the same time, my faith has become much surer. I can’t really describe it, except by saying that it’s a sense of being loved, in a very calm, sustaining kind of way.

Which is all very well, when my brain is working. Quite often it isn’t. I’ve had depression on and off for the past twelve years, I would guess. There are two things about this that are particularly relevant to this post. Firstly: when I am depressed I cannot remember how it feels to not be depressed. (Conversely, when I’m not depressed, I find it difficult to remember how awful being depressed is, but, because my brain is working better all round, I can – if I choose, which I usually don’t – describe it via imagination.) Secondly: when I am depressed I cannot feel love, either giving it or receiving it. I can have my best friend hugging me and feel about as much emotional response as a dustpan.

This is where savoir and connaître come into it. In my head I know that my family love me, that my husband loves me, that my friends love me. Sometimes they tell me this using actual words. They mean those words. And in my head I know all that, and it means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t get any further. When my brain is working, on the other hand, it’s fine. It all gets through and I feel it deeply. I can quite often be in love with the entire universe for whole seconds at a time. (An interesting side-effect of this is that I now cry at pretty much anything. Tinny call-centre Vivaldi, for example. Also discovering that I have more and better friends than I thought I had, which has happened quite a lot over the past few months because of my brain not being so broken as usual.)

What I am driving at here is probably obvious: that a faith that manifests itself predominantly in a sense of love cannot make itself felt all the time, particularly when I can’t feel love all the time anyway. And I suppose the spaces between might well be called doubt. The thing is, though, that I know that the ones who love me don’t stop loving me just because I don’t have the capacity to experience it, any more than the sun stops burning when it’s behind a cloud. The same feels true of the Divine. Apart from anything else, that’s always the first thing to come back.

So: that’s me, and faith, and doubt. I hope… I don’t know what I hope. But there it is. Be gentle.


The hashtag is cribbed from @davewalker. My reaction to that was, ‘oh, thank goodness, it’s not just me!’

It’s been a long Lent. A cold Lent, a hard Lent, a Lent that didn’t stop for Sundays, that ground me down, that wore on and on.

The first two weeks were OK and I had good intentions. Things like doing a lectio divina – not every day, because I am realistic, but twice a week at least, let’s say, and not buying things in supermarkets, and not buying things I didn’t need at all, and I was doing reasonably well…

Then there were all the people: two weeks where I had to see people every day, to be interesting and polite and to talk, and then have to do it all over again in the evening, because it was a PCC meeting, or my mother was staying the night, or there was something else that meant I had to talk to people, and I never had an evening, let alone a day, to just crash; and then my brain broke and I cried at work and I know I shouldn’t have gone in in the first place.

Then I caught a cold, which put me in bed for two days (not consecutive) and has put me on limited spoons (to the extent that my reasoning goes like this: “I would like to go out for a cycle. But my front tyre needs pumping up. But pumping my tyre up will be so much effort that by the time I’ve done it I will be too tired to go out cycling. Also I have evensong tonight oh God oh God there is so much stuff to do I just can’t…”)

And they put the clocks forward an hour and I’m not sure I’m ready for Easter. Because it’s already here and I’m still tired and cold and grumpy and coughing like a blocked drain, and not feeling spiritual in the least. #everythingchanges, says the Church of England, and I am here going, really?

But new life doesn’t always come with a boom as the stone crashes down. Mostly it creeps out in tender little green shoots, or tiny sticky leaves. It is not spectacular, but it is hope, of a sort.

I went to church this morning. The last hymn was Thine be the glory and our organist played little twiddly bits between the verses, because it’s Easter. The one between the second and last verses was particularly reminiscent of another famous Handel piece. Hallelujah! it went. Hallelujah!. Then, diddly diddly diddly pom pom pom NO MORE WE DOUBT THEE…

It would not have had me on my feet (had I not been already, I mean…) But I did feel a tear prickling at the corner of an eye, and thought, oh.

I am alive, after all. Hallelujah.

Reverb 23: letting go

Day 23: what will you let go of?

Name three excuses — stories you tell yourself that are holding you back — that you are going to let go of in 2013.

1. As previously discussed, ‘ought to’. The idea that I cannot level up to ‘decent human being’ until I complete tasks X, Y and Z – when it would be much easier to complete said tasks if I had first accepted that I am a decent human being, accepted and valued as such.

2. My writing is terrible and I can’t plot for toffee. And that this is an immoveable obstacle. In fact, I’ve proved to myself this year that plotting comes with practice.

3. That everybody hates me. This is a mindworm that comes free with depression, and ranges in severity from ‘I’m not very popular’ to ‘I am completely pointless and useless’, by way of ‘everybody that claims to like or love me is either lying or bonkers’ and ‘I should not try to make friends because I will just look stupid’.

I could really do with letting go of my fear of looking stupid.

Reverb 19: nourishing

Day 19: how did you nourish yourself?

How did you nourish your beautiful body in 2012?

What self-care practices will you take with you into 2013?

In February I got into a useful habit of making a large batch of soup on a Sunday, which could be heated up in the work microwave, and did three or four lunches, and got me eating more vegetables with less faff. This went on for some months, but I have got out of the habit again. The problem is that Sunday is my busy day, and I do not always find time between morning church and evening church to cook – sometimes, to cook twice. Not to mention shopping and all that.

I went through a phase of consuming daily multivitamin pills and St John’s Wort (in the vague hope that they would sort out my immune system and the brain slugs respectively) but got out of that habit as well. I’m no good with pills.

At the moment I am eating a lot of clementines and satsumas and things, because they are easy and cheerful.

I have been wondering (vaguely, again) about getting a veg box delivered. I do tend to use food up if I actually have it in the house (unless I have completely forgotten about it). We did decide against it a while back, on the grounds that the market is so good, but we don’t actually go to the market, because of having to carry everything back. (I suppose the trike would help with that; but it is still a journey that I don’t necessarily have time to make.)

Also, try not to fall over so much. And go to the dentist.