It was the simple, unflinching truth spoken. It was moment so sharp, so sincere, that I could not help but be moved by it. A work colleague opens up and choses to share his vulnerability with the team and I am uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He talks of his depression. He talks of how difficult life was, of how he wanted to do nothing and see no one when he was at his lowest point. He talks, and we listen. He talks and the silence that surround his words make them sound far away. He talks, and I fight the urge to go up to reach out to him, to tell him of how impossibly brave I think he’s being. He talks, and the trust laid open by his candour shows me what true bravery is. He talks to make this bad word real. The word we whisper, the disease we pretend does not exist, the people we tell to cheer up and get over it. There is remarkable strength in his vulnerability and in that moment of his truth, I wish for nothing for him apart from a desire for things to be easier. Not only easier for him to manage this disease but easier for him to be as open and as transparent as he was in that moment.
I won’t lie, depression scares me. I don’t understand enough about the disease and I often feel powerless and anxious when someone brings up the topic, because I’m never quite sure how I should react or what I should say. Part of me wants to make things better and even larger part of me does not to do more harm and try. What little I do know about the disease is that it is a silent killer, that it can spawn irreparable damage and devastation. I also know that depression is a wound that does not heal, it is one you must overcome and treat constantly, perhaps more so when you think you’ve got it covered. I know that many people have fought this battle, that many people continue to fight daily, and I admire them for the strength it must take to face each day, but it pains me when I hear “But I’m okay now, it was really rough, but I got through it”. Sometimes I feel like there is too much pressure to say those words. It pains me because that is the story we want to hear, when we do acknowledge this disease we want to jump to the part where everything is okay, we don’t want to hear about the messy parts in between. Give me your sob story just make sure you have a happy ending, pal. If not, let me badger you with words that will comfort me and tell you that’s not that bad, that you have nothing to be sad about, that you should “cheer up”. Let me do this until you only find release in lies I want to hear. Let me look at you and see you smile so that I can say “Look at everything he’s been through, and yet he’s so strong.” As if strength lies in pretence, as if strength only belongs to those who are cheerful, as if strength lies in a choice between happiness and depression. It pains me because we leave no room for vulnerability and for courage, we undermine what real strength looks like, so we can make things more convenient for ourselves.
I found myself crying at a funeral late last year and I felt odd because I did not know the man I was crying for. I don’t think anyone did. I cried because he was a prisoner in his own mind, I cried because he never got the treatment he needed for his mental illness and I cried because he died lonelier than I would have ever wanted to be. No one knew him because his disease was scary, his behaviour was embarrassing, his family was ashamed. And so, he lived and died with us only ever knowing the disease but never the man beneath it and I cried because no one should have to live that way. I cried because so many do live that way. If that upsets you even in a very small way, know that it is reported that two thirds of people who suffer from depression will never get the right treatment. Know that this disease carries a stigma, that many believe that it belongs to the weak or the crazy. Know that many of us would rather stick our heads in the sand than admit that something like this is close to home. Know that like me, you’re also part of the problem. Well, our ignorance is at any rate. However, there is a cure for ignorance. We must arm ourselves against our foolishness and our pride and we must not stop until we understand this disease better, until we are no longer ashamed or afraid. We cannot wait until you or I are afflicted, we cannot wait till this touches our family or friends, because chances are it already has.
If you haven’t done so, it’s worth checking out the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. We cannot wait any longer, we must know more, we must encourage our friends and family to speak up and to get the right treatment and we must be proud of those who do. It is time to replace the shame with courage, courage to challenge old beliefs and courage to give others the ability to speak their truth.