Penny For Your Thoughts: Do Your Hide Your Depressed Self?

September 10, 2015  |  

I wanted to call today’s column, “When I’m Depressed, Stop Acting Like I Have Cooties.”

Having been diagnosed with clinical depression for nearly 20 years (and most recently with bipolar depression), I know from experience that people don’t want to be around me when I’m at my most depressed. And that’s okay, because there are some people who I don’t want to be around when I’m at my most depressed.

By my estimate, there are three types of people whose phone calls you should avoid when you’re a person who suffers from depression and feeling your lowest:

  1. The people who can “tell something’s wrong,” “can hear it in your voice” and just want to “know what’s going on…stop crying…talk to me.”
  2. The people who want to come over and cheer you up.
  3. The people who don’t want to hear that you’re feeling more depressed than usual. But if you insisted on telling them what’s really going on, you’d hear them sigh heavily, sounding exasperated and/or disappointed that you were feeling that way yet again.

My solitude during periods of depression is largely self-inflicted. When I’m at my most depressed, I call it “not feeling well.” Using that phrase helps because if I’m feeling sh*tty with strep throat, I don’t invite my friends over to witness my matted hair, crusty eyes, and slobber pillow. Plus, when you’re sick, there’s the expectation that you should quarantine yourself to spare other folks your germs. Thing is, there are plenty of sicknesses that you can’t catch. (And, to be clear, “sickness” is a term I somewhat reluctantly and delicately employ here.) Strep throat is contagious. But depression is not. (And this isn’t conjecture; it’s a scientific fact, further supported by new research.)

Part of why I stay to myself when I’m at my most depressed is because I know, firsthand, that being around Depressed Penny can make people want to douse themselves with invisible “Forcefield, No Backs” spray. It’s that feeling you get after you’ve spent only a few minutes at a hoarder’s home, brushing against cruddy boxes and stepping over weeks-old cat litter. But as leave you still feel imaginary mites crawling on your arm or laying eggs in your scalp, like, “Get away from me! Get them off of me!”

I wouldn’t want to be around Depressed Penny, either. She refuses to shower and will only watch the same old episodes of Frasier, Friends, and Law & Order Special Victims Unit. Depressed Penny is an acquired taste. Most people avoid Depressed Penny and wait her out from a distance. Some people, like my friend Whitney, will forcefully insist that she rejoin the land of the living. But even Whitney is not shy about expressing her dislike for Depressed Penny. She will drag Depressed Penny to Joe’s Crab Shack for a spontaneous lunch date just because she wants to spend time with whatever Penny that she can get. She won’t insist that Depressed Penny take a shower but she will insist that Depressed Penny cover her matted afro with something other than a satin sleep bonnet. During lunch, Depressed Penny will cry a lot and laugh a lot and cry some more. To Whitney, Depressed Penny is still Human Penny.

I’ve learned that while some folks, like Whitney, aren’t afraid to be around Depressed Penny, they are quite disinterested in witnessing her in her natural habitat: The couch. Who could blame them? There’s nothing fun about watching a thirty-something-year-old woman lay there lifelessly while self-medicating and numbing herself with Netflix. Such sullen behavior grosses out most people, and they’re afraid of getting the doom-and-gloom cooties.

However, the well and the unwell must coexist. People who have depression don’t live in a bubble any more than people who have HIV or cancer or herpes. What that means is sometimes we bump heads.

Recently, I made an appearance as Depressed Penny and bumped heads with the guy I’ve been dating (and who I’ve talked about in my columns recently). After I completed a drawn-out relocation from New York City to my hometown in Pennsylvania, I spent a few days on my new beau’s couch eating pizza and binge-watching Netflix. For me, it was a familiar rut and hiding place–except I was in plain sight. For him, it was worrisome. He asked me every morning, “Are you gonna get off the couch today?’ And he sent me text messages saying, “Did you get off the couch yet?” and “All that sleep isn’t good for you.” When I got defensive about his inquiries, we had a text argument that devolved into this man telling me, “Too bad you left your therapist in NYC because you’re CRAZY.”

When he said that, he may as well have kneed me in the stomach (that’s what it felt like). I have not been shy to talk about depression with him or anyone else. But telling people you have depression is one thing; letting people see you in your various states of depression is another. It is the nature of the beast to withdraw from friends and family.  But I’ve lived alone for more than a decade and I haven’t been in a relationship for many years, so I’ve spent a long time not learning how to bear with people while they bear with me.

If you have depression, how do you deal with people seeing Depressed You? Do you feel like people act as though Depressed You has cooties and needs to “clean up her act,” so to speak? If you love someone who has depression, do you ever get to see Depressed ___ and, when you do, how do you react?

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