Talking to Someone

This post contains frank discussion of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts, which may be triggering.

In recent years I've been more open about the fact that I struggle with mental illness. Still, the way I talk about it has been guarded. I've detached myself from the immediacy of my struggles and discussed them from a distance, often shielding myself with humor. This post, I hope, will be different.

Since a little before Thanksgiving I have been depressed. In fairness, I am depressed most of the time, but I've spent the past few weeks well below my baseline. I've ranged from barely to not at all functional, struggled with my classes, struggled getting out of bed, and struggled with frequent suicidal thoughts. I've been going to therapy, meeting with my psychiatrist, and taking my medications but honestly it feels like I haven't done much beyond that. I want to say I'm not at risk because I really feel like I'm not: I haven't made any plans or actions and I've worked with my therapist to create a safety plan. But I still have been thinking about it a lot.

There's a zillion things people suggest to those struggling with mental illness, some more helpful than others, but the clarion call always seems to be: talk to someone. From experience, it may be the single most effective technique. At the same time, talking to someone who is not a mental health professional about your issues is hard. Therapy is difficult but the vulnerability required to discuss things in a real, honest way with a trusted friend can seem impossible. I know talking with someone helps but I still have a hard time doing it.

It sucks that the people I feel most comfortable talking to about this stuff live thousands of miles away. I still talk to them when I can but it lacks the intimacy of being with someone, face to face. I value the phone calls and texts and Twitter exchanges but they can't do much when I ache to be embraced and held tightly.

Even with the people I trust the most, it's still hard to sum up the courage to say that I'm struggling. Part of the reason is because I have an ingrained belief that conversation is transactional. Talking to someone is equated with asking for help and if I'm asking for help I should know what help I'm asking for. There's something deep inside me, instinctual, that says, What am I getting out of this? or This won't change how I feel. That's not the point of talking to someone, though. It's about building relationships. I know this but there's still a nagging thought of, This won't make them like you when I think about opening up. So I stick to the safe stuff. Or, with those I'm closer to that I know struggle with similar thoughts and feelings, I ask them how they are doing. I do care, sincerely, about them but I ask in part to dance around the idea of reaching out without ever hitting on it directly.

There are also some people with whom it's deeply uncomfortable to discuss my mental health issues not just in the abstract: people I've talked to and have rarely left a conversation feeling better. These people are all family. I don't want to throw my family under a bus or anything but this is something I need to say. Maybe expressing how talking about this stuff with my family makes me feel can be an indirect way of saying to them why it's so difficult to talk about this stuff.

When I think about talking to a family member about how I'm struggling, I immediately feel shame. It makes me want to temper my words and make it seem like I'm doing better than I am. There's a feeling of I should be doing better; I should be better. So I tend to understate the severity of my struggles.

My family members tend to give one of two types of responses when I open up to them, both of which make me deeply uncomfortable. The first is advice. This plays into the shame aspect, making me think that I should just be doing X, Y, or Z and that would fix everything. Just pick myself up by the bootstraps and power through. But I've been trying to power through for years and it's just not working.

The second type of response is sympathy. It's harder to pin down why this makes me uncomfortable. I get the intention is towards compassion but it ends up feeling othering. The words may be indistinguishable from empathy but they come off differently. Part of it is that I don't want my family worrying about me but another part is that I don't want them pitying me. Maybe it's my own internalized shame that makes me feel that way.

Maybe this isn't the best forum to say all of this. It feels better though, to have written it out. It feels easier to put this out there than to talk to someone in person. Maybe this is just another way of guarding myself from talking to someone.