I’ve learned in 12-step support groups that if you decide to share something important with a loved one, or try to mend a broken relationship, you should do so without any expectation of a response.
I wish I had followed that advice the day I sent a family member an incredibly personal piece that I wrote about my severe depression (suicidal thoughts and all), and the first moments of dawn, hoping that it would make us closer.
Her response was one word: “Thanks.”
But part of my disappointment was my own fault.
I sent the piece to her with an agenda. This is what I wanted to hear: “You’ve been through a lot. I’m so happy you’ve come through to the other side.”
And when I didn’t get that, I was upset. I assumed she “got it”–the whole depression thing. I see now that this involves two mistakes (actually just one really big one): an assumption. ALL assumptions are termites in a relationship, and ESPECIALLY with regard to depression. Most people just don’t get it. Period. And I should stop expecting them to.
My mom keeps teaching me that lesson. Over and over again. I just now hung up the phone with her. Her last words: “People don’t get it. Remember that. And you’ll be less disappointed.”
I was venting to her just like I did the afternoon, fresh out of the psych ward, when my friend Liz told me that she thought antidepressants suppressed a person’s emotions, insinuating that I’d do well to pitch the happy pills and tough it out like the rest of humanity.
“No one understands, Mom. You and Eric. That’s it. And a few friends. Everyone else thinks I’m weak for joining the droves of Americans on Prozac.”
“Who cares?” she asked. “Why do you need their approval?”
“Because I’m not weak and it’s unfair to be labeled that way,” I explained.
“I don’t think you’re weak. Eric doesn’t. And you have several friends who believe in you. If you don’t want to be constantly frustrated I suggest you lower your expectations. Assume that people won’t understand, and you’ll be less disappointed when they don’t.”
Just as seasoned parents say “Just you wait!” to the pregnant lady in front of them at the checkout line, a person can’t begin to appreciate the harrowing darkness of depression unless she’s been there.
William Styron wrote his memoir, “Darkness Visible,” as a response to the public’s reaction to the suicide of Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer and chemist who had survived the Holocaust. The scholars who admired Levi wondered how he could have endured years of torture by the Nazis yet break under depression.
“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it,” Styron wrote. “To the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.”
Like Styron, I was both enraged and saddened that friends and family were shocked to hear that two doctors sliced me open — before full anesthesia kicked in — to save little David’s life in an emergency C-section. Yet when I voiced the desperation of depression — which made the knife cut feel like a knee scratch — they often brushed it off, as if I were whining to win some undeserved sympathy votes.
But I should know better. Most people don’t get it. And the day I get that through my head I’ll be less disappointed.