How To Be A Good Depressive Citizen

Author Libba Bray has a wonderful post on what it’s like to have depression - a post that, sadly, follows the Grand And Stilted Tradition Of Authors Admitting Their Depression.

They have to speak of depression a certain way, lest they be labelled a Bad Depressive Citizen.

Now, the gold standard for a writer suffering from depression is to Not Say Anything. Spend all that sadness with your mouth firmly shut. Then, after months of hard-pent silence, as you are emerging from the depression and find yourself in a place that you can properly control yourself, you write a Very Articulate Post detailing your pain…

…but do it from a distance. Write about it in a sad, somber tone. Do not evince an ounce of self-pity. Hold this odious disease at a distance. End it with a triumphant note that yes, you too can fight back!

Because God help you if you write your depressive post when you’re actually depressed, and uncertain if you’re going to make it. That worries people. You don’t want to write about yourself in a way that gets your audience concerned about you, because then you’ll just have told a bunch of people that maybe you’re not okay. And what will they do then? How will they rest until you’re in a stable place?

That’s rude. Button that shit up, depressive person.

And as a public figure, you can’t share your actual fears either. Maybe you’re melting down because you’re afraid you’re a lousy musician. But if, as a depressive, you slip up and post “I AM A SHITTY MUSICIAN AND I SUCK,” then everyone knows what you are: you’re an attention whore. You’re asking for people to suck up to you! All you want is positive feedback? What a drama queen (or king) you are!

(Even if you don’t want positive feedback, you know the positive feedback will bounce off your shields, you just wanted to stop swallowing this terror back all the time and give it a voice so it’s somewhere outside of your fucking skull for once.)

And shit, if you’re lucky enough to have had some success, that public outcry? It’s ungrateful. Hey, your band got signed – that’s farther than I ever got, what kind of asshole are you for dismissing my lack of accomplishments? Christ, what a whiny bitch you are.

And then someone who was a fan of yours feels completely dismissed because you’ve just told them that everything you did thus far was crappy and thus they, in turn, must be crappy for liking you, and how dare you tell them that? God, what a jerk you are for pissing on your fans.

And then someone says, “Wow, X is having a meltdown,” and people tune in to watch the trainwreck that is you, and you get a reputation as someone unstable. People start to edge away. You fucked up, man, you just let the mask slip, and now people see the quivering Jell-O underneath – and some people are repulsed by your slippery innards, and others see a feast of despair to chow the fuck down on.

A couple of outbursts like that can change your whole life.

And God forbid your despair involves other people. If you post about your worry that you’re a terrible parent, congratulations! You just hauled your kid into the shining spotlight of a talk show, and that show is entitled, “Is X Actually A Horrible Parent?” Your parenting styles are going to be discussed, debated, with people actually having real investment in this, and some people are going to come to the conclusion - whether this is fair or not - that you are an awful fucking parent. In some cases, all the evidence they’ll have is that you’ve raised the question. But that’ll be enough.

And that reputation will follow your ass around, my friend. People will question your stability. They’ll have Heard Things. They’ll wonder how you’re doing now, with the understanding that you could break at any moment, that you’re crazy deep down, that you didn’t have the maturity to mash that ugly shit down like you fucking well should have.

Now, I’m not kidding, or being in the least sarcastic, when I say that Libba has written a wonderful post. That is part of what it’s like to be depressed, and she expresses it well, and eloquently. It helps, and I am glad she wrote it.

But notice how carefully she speaks. She doesn’t say what, if anything, she is depressed about – and she’s a good enough writer that that omission is clearly on purpose.

Because she knows how to be a good depressive citizen.

Depression is messy, and ugly, and sticky. You don’t take it out in public until it’s thoroughly sanitized, freeze-dried, and vacuum-packed – or you make yourself a reputation that you don’t want. It is okay to be depressed, even valorous, so long as you never actually demonstrate depression.

Right now, dressed in the blog-equivalent of a crisp business suit, some depressive is blogging as the Good Citizen, tears wiped off of blotched cheeks, a stiff upper lip, toeing the party line that we can all get through this if we just keep swimming. She is an inspiration.

You do not discuss your depression until you can be an inspiration, or you are just fucking crazy.

Nobody likes crazy.

And there are very good reasons why maybe going off on one of your social networks during a depressive breakdown is a bad idea. Living your life via the equivalent of emotional crowdfunding is almost guaranteed to be ruined. And hauling your friends and family into the spotlight against their will to be discussed among strangers is a toxic fucking thing. And depression lies, so a lot of the things you say will be so utterly foolish and untrue that one day you’ll regret writing it down, simply because some idiot took you at face value, and some other idiot now thinks you’re an idiot for believing that guff in the first place.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to only discuss depression when you can hold it at a distance and analyze it.

But this need to be a Good Depressive Citizen makes the journey that much more alone, sometimes. You can have thousands of people following you on the social network of your choice, and yet here you are alone in your apartment, trying desperately to keep this despair properly tamped down. You have to clutch your knees and choke back those cries of despair, because if you share this angst with the world, then you might get a label you can never take back.

And deep down, this need to be a Good Depressive Citizen fuels the fear that you’re really not lovable, or worthy, as you can’t share this shit-fountain of diarrhetic despair welling up inside of you with the world at large. You can only share it with the pre-screened handful of friends who understand you, who have demonstrated they know how to deal properly with this malfunctioning beast that is your brain, and maybe you’re not worthy of love maybe you’re just finding people who are stupid enough to take pity on you.

Then, after months of that, when medication and time and circumstance and habit have worn it down, you can write a dispassionate blog entry. On how hard it’s been. On abstract terrors. With a good, solid, “We’re all in this together.”

And you’re a Good Depressive. Someone people can point to as an example for others. Not one of those hair-tearing lunatics who can’t function, amiright?

14 Comments

  1. Mishell Baker
    Mar 9, 2014

    Don’t know if it was what you were going for, but I now feel as much like a terrible person for having beaten depression as I ever felt for having it.

    • mightydoll
      Mar 9, 2014

      If that’s your response to this article, I’d argue you haven’t beaten depression, at all.

  2. Lyn Belzer-Tonnessen
    Mar 9, 2014

    Huh. Now I feel like splashing some crazy around the walls…

  3. Kristi K
    Mar 11, 2014

    I completely get it, and I love this post. Thank you for sharing.

  4. NotDepressed
    Mar 11, 2014

    I figure this is tongue-in-cheek. I agree with most of it in a non-tongue-in-cheek way.

    Sorry, but I don’t want to hear about your depression. I don’t want to hire you and I don’t want to spend weeks and months of my life dealing with your depression. I want you to go get help. I want you to spend time getting therapy and trying to become a non-depressed citizen.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have sympathy for your plight, but not for the mindset that it should be ok. Up-beat people are (in general) overachievers and kick ass. I want to hire them, I want them in my life because they’re gonna go “Hey, I’ve never made Creme Brulee – let’s do that today!!!”, instead of going “Let’s just go get McDonald’s.”

    So yes, please be a “good depressive citizen”… and GO GET HELP.

    • SR
      Mar 13, 2014

      This last sentence.

      The trouble is, that I’ve seen a lot of people using their depression (or other physical or mental illness) as an excuse to act badly. And no illness is a free pass to being a douche.

      I have no issue with people posting that they are struggling, that they need help. I think that is a very good thing, and if they need that little push to get help, it can be a thing that saves lives.

      I do think it is a good thing that people talk about the reality of mental illness. The problem is that they can also use it to manipulate people.

      And Ferrett, just in case you read this that way – I have never seen you being in the latter category.

      • TheFerrett
        Mar 14, 2014

        Yeah, the problem is that a lot of people DO do that, and it’s hard to filter out those.

        I’ve been meaning to write a post on the celebration of depression and how distressing I find it, but that’ll get some backlash. It’s one of those essays I need to be braced for.

    • Ziya Tamesis
      Mar 14, 2014

      Hi Not Depressed,

      I have anxious depression, and I felt more than a little bit upset when I read your comment. For the record, I am being a “good depressive citizen” and getting help; today I met with my therapist in person instead of over Skype. But some days – ironically, the days I need it the most – that’s really really hard to do. Kind of like walking to the doctor when you have a broken leg. I need more help than I’m getting but I don’t know where to turn, and sometimes I need other people to help me, or just listen and tell me they love me with all my crazy difficulties functioning.

      It’s not your job to listen to my problems; I get that. We all need to set boundaries sometimes. But I think you could show a little bit more compassion to people who are having a hard time, especially in response to a well-written article about how important it is to be able to express what depression is like while you’re experiencing it. (Which is arguably more difficult than writing the cleaned-up version after the fact.) And by the way, being depressed wouldn’t be so darn depressing if I thought it was okay. But here I am, and my efforts to change myself are going more slowly than I’d like, so I kind of need to feel accepted as I currently am.

      Also for the record, I may find it very difficult to be up-beat, but that doesn’t make me any less of an overachiever. It also doesn’t make me any less worthy or in need of employment. You know what’s maybe not the best thing to say to someone who’s depressed and probably having confidence issues that interfere with job hunting? Or just, you know, spending time with people instead of isolating themselves which leads to worse depression? Yeah, the whole “I don’t want to hire you; I prefer up-beat people” line. Feel free to think it, but please don’t say it to my face. I don’t need confirmation of my worst fears.

    • NotHandicapped?
      May 14, 2014

      Please reread what you wrote, replacing “depression” by “physical handicap”. Do you still agree with it? If no, why? If yes, what do you think about disability employment laws?

  5. Mighty Minion
    Mar 11, 2014

    Your post feels way too true, and depression is one of the more accepted of the mental disorders. Having one can cause a lot of discrimination, even if well managed.

  6. Jennifer
    Mar 11, 2014

    I think I just fell in love with you a little bit and I know that sounds creepy but this was so beautiful and so very important. Thank you.

  7. E
    Apr 9, 2014

    Hm. From where I’m sitting, this post actually seems like a tremendously inaccurate and unfair reaction to the piece it’s commenting on! I expected to agree with it, but find myself mostly feeling like you missed a lot of elements of the first piece.

    “Because God help you if you write your depressive post when you’re actually depressed, and uncertain if you’re going to make it.” Well, no, there’s actually a lot of uncertainty and nuanced fear of “not making it” in this supposed “Good Depressive Citizen” narrative.

    “She doesn’t say what, if anything, she is depressed about – and she’s a good enough writer that that omission is clearly on purpose.” Well, no, for a lot of people depression isn’t *about* anything–that can be one of depression’s most distinctive characteristics.

    Yes, there are harmful ableist tropes and expectations in play when it comes to narratives about depression and other mental illness, but I think it’s a huge mistake to treat Libba Bray’s piece as an example of that. Just because something is carefully crafted rather than raw (which is the real difference between the examples given of Good vs. Bad Depressive Citizen) doesn’t mean it’s not written from within the abyss, doesn’t mean it’s sanitized or stilted. Those truths are different from one another, but they can both be true. The linked piece isn’t one of those essays that puts depression firmly in the past as a vanquished enemy, or that glosses over the uncontrollable realities of being in the throes of it–this commentary feels like a reaction to one of those, not to the one that actually set it off.

  8. Bad Citizen
    May 21, 2014

    Thanks for this article. I’m not always depressed but I’ve certainly struggled with it for the better part of my life and have so far survived through it. It’s constant work though, not something you “go get help” for, slap a band-aid on, and it never rears it’s head again. Still, depressed or not, I feel better about myself being a fighter than a smug superior ableist jerk like the 3 commenters further up.

    P.S. – I knew someone who was a professional chef who had her own mental struggles, and despite that could make a more awesome Creme Brulee than any “up-beat” person.

    • Oh Darn...
      May 21, 2014

      My gravatar image showed up on this? So it’s not anonymous. Whatever, I stand by everything I said about any so-called “positive thinking” fanatic who demand everyone be disingenuous about states of mind for their own convenience, not the sufferer’s.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. I Aim to Misbehave | a day with depression - […] other article, How to Be a Good Depressive Citizen by Ferrett Steinmetz, calls authors out on the tendency to write …
  2. Help-Seeking and Status » Gruntled & Hinged - […] to How to Be a Good Depressive Citizen, this tumblr post and also this […]

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