August 27, 2016

“The Crab Of Hate”

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I have a lot of symptoms of an anxious person. Going to the loo lots of times before bed but it’s nothing to do with my bladder, it’s an anxious trait. It’s the inability to settle down into bed before having to write things down, going to the bathroom, roaming around. I sometimes sit and shake and feel tetchy and my friends can spot it a mile off.

But I have never had depression. But that doesn’t automatically mean I never will.  And it definitely doesn’t mean it won’t ever affect me in other ways; we are all likely to have friends and family that suffer, or will suffer at some point in their lives. After all, 1 in 4 of the population will suffer from depression in their life time. Susan Calman calls depression “the crab of hate”.

We ALL need to read about it and listen and learn. And carrying on learning.

I read on the Guardian this week than more than third of teenage girls in England suffer depression and anxiety. 52% of young LGBT people report self-harm either now or in the past.

People who don’t have depression are the minority. 

One subject that needs clearing up too, is how to help someone with depression, when you don’t have it yourself. Sometimes it can be an absolute minefield. Because if you don’t know how it feels, then how can you help? You can end up feeling totally helpless and useless. You desperately want to help but there is no official guide book.

What do I say? Did I say something wrong? What’s the “correct” thing to say? What would they want me to say? Do I try and “cheer them up?” Do I sing Monty Pythons “Always look on the bright side of life”? Do I recommend things that make me happy and see if it works? Do I try and ask them loads of questions? Do I take them out? Do we stay in? Do I offer a gin and tonic? Have I said something wrong?

Unfortunately, you WILL get it wrong.

You will probably fuck up and say something totally unhelpful. Not through spite or on purpose, but through a total lack of understanding. We cannot feel other people’s pain – if someone breaks their leg, we cannot totally understand what that pain is. We can imagine it, and imagine it must be really bad, but we can’t physically feel it. 

You might want to try and “fix” them or offer solutions or say something like “it could be worse” or “but you have a great life!” or “but the sun is out!” and I’m probably guilty of saying one of these in the past. Or something worse, thinking I was helping when I really wasn’t.

Communication is key. And that’s why I appreciate Susan Calman. I saw her speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week and I felt totally privileged to a part of the audience. 

She spoke about depression in the most frank way: “depressives can be the most selfish and self-absorbed people in the world” and “sometimes the most you can do for someone is doing something helpful for them, like the dry-cleaning. Something small that they can’t quite manage themselves, or just sit next to them and listen, with a cup of tea.”

Her book Cheer Up, Love offers her own lessons and advice, and ways she managed to her curb her depression through small changes made to her lifestyle (CBT, not drinking and exercise). Maybe you could call this a guidebook of sorts. Although she stresses it’s not a medical book and that different things work for different people.

Her book is mainly for fellow sufferers of depression – but also for the people who are partners/friends/acquaintances of someone with depression. She spoke about her wife during the talk too – how her wife has learned ways to be there during bad days and OK days and good days.

She spoke about friendships too – how some friendships can break down. How sometimes people are pushed away when one or both people are depressed and how it sometimes unfortunately can’t be helped. Some friendships can take a beating and it’s normally no one’s fault.

What Calman does so perfectly is that she doesn’t judge. She just said “right, I’m going to read you a list of things that you should never say to a depressed person. I’m not being mean, and if you’ve said one of these things then don’t think I’m trying to make you feel bad, it’s just meant to help for the future.”

She is a comedian, and had the audience in stitches, but this does not mean she didn’t show a softer more vulnerable side too.  When she was 15, she said that she was sent to a Psychiatric Unit in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. She welled up, and said she was so scarred from the experience that she pretended to be fine for decades afterwards.

Pretended to be fine.

No-one, let alone a teenager, should be locked up for having signs of depression. No-one should pretend to be fine. Comments from her parents, however much they loved her, were sometimes unhelpful too. Post-War, they had a “just get on with it!” attitude to life.

It is clear what Calman’s mission is: to normalise depression. “It is just one part of me. It is just one part of who I am.” She questioned why it needs to be a “big reveal” when someone is depressed – why can’t it just be something that is part of you? Like a TV programme you like, or the fact you have brown hair?

Another thing that stuck with me is what Calman said about asking people how they are. We are in a culture of asking “how are you?” and immediately saying “fine! busy!” or not really waiting for a response and tapping away on our phones. Or in an email asking “hope you’re well” and moving on.

Sometimes, people aren’t well. So, she says, “when you ask ‘how are you’, wait. Really wait, for a response, and really listen.”

Thank you Edinburgh Book Festival for having me there, and to Susan Calman who signed my copy of her book Cheer Up Love and for writing a book that will no doubt help a lot of people.

More information about depression can be find on Mind.co.uk and The Samaritans can be contacted.

For more information on the Edinburgh Book Festival visit: edinburghfestivalcity.com

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