“Pull Yourself Together“
Some people assume that depression is a state we can fall into when not paying attention. A natural, but lazy response to modern life. They assume that if we wished to, we could stop feeling depressed, by pulling ourselves together – by forcing ourselves out of a depression and into the required normal/happy mood of the speaker.
This has never been my experience. I can, it is true, put on a front of being not-depressed, certainly when I am not at my worst periods of depression. I can and do try to stop others noticing that I am depressed, partly because I want to avoid statements like this. Also, I view my depression as not being any stranger/acquaintance’s business. I can try, but often fail, to look just like everyone else.
I cannot, however, make myself not-depressed by willpower. I don’t think many with clinical depression (as opposed to the “I’m feeling a little low, I broke a nail” type of “depression”) can. You cannot make depression go away by simply wishing it – if it were possible I would have done so. People seek and out and take all manner of unlikely “cures” for depression, we take medications from doctors that may not work or have unpalatable side effects in the search to simply feel better. If it were as simple as wishing/willing ourselves to feel normal, I would gladly take that option over the clutch of pills I have to take every morning and evening, even now.
I have sometimes experienced a sort of lethargy that can be countered by “pulling myself together”, but note, lethargy, not depression. Do people realise what depression is? As the NHS Choices website puts it:
Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days.
We all go through spells of feeling down, but when you’re depressed, you feel persistently sad for weeks or months rather than just a few days.
Some people still think that depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. They’re wrong. Depression is a real illness with real symptoms, and it’s not a sign of weakness or something you can ‘snap out of’ by ‘pulling yourself together’.
My depressions are triggered by things that simply would not affect others at all. I once had a terrible depression, and eventual hospitalisation for that depression, mainly because of pressure at work to deliver IT training. I became so anxious about presenting this training that I triggered off a really bad depression, yet I know that most of the people I know wouldn’t be troubled at all by doing something like that. Just because I have become depressed as a result of something trivial, or if I am depressed for no reason at all, does not mean I am not suffering.
I wonder whether the people who say “pull yourself together” or similar phrases have actually experienced depression? Do they know that it can suddenly strike when everything is going well for you and knock you down with a wave of feeling terrible? Do they know the desperation I feel when things are so bad that I cannot comprehend feeling better again, of having hope, when it feels like God has left me and all the world must hate me? Do they understand that no one wants, or through laziness slips into a state where all they can think of is self-harming or suicide? And why do you, who hold those views, see me as a “properly” ill person, because of my scars, when you turn around and tell others they aren’t really ill?
Because this, too, is a problem. I seem to have a choice before me now that I have moved to a new place. Either I can say, yes, I am bipolar, I am on benefits, I am a mentally ill person with an armful of scars that you can see, and thereby be seen as ‘mad’ and faulty. Or I can say, I suffered depression and that is why I am on benefits, and have the response of “everyone gets depressed”, “pull yourself together” or otherwise not be taken seriously. If we talk frankly about how depression is affecting us, all the unmentionables such as suicidal thoughts and the like, then people do indeed admit that we are ill. But we lose something, people have treated me differently. They seem to think I am dangerously unpredictable, and they also seem to think I am asking to be bullied. If I say “bipolar” people take my illness seriously, with both positive and negative consequences. If I say “depression” (which is what mostly affects me) then they are more likely to suggest that it is a moral fault.
I remember almost hoping that what affected me wasn’t “just” depression when I was diagnosed. This was partly due to manic symptoms but also because other mental disorders carry a certain cachet. There is discrimination against those with depression and those with bipolar, but they are different. There is suspicion but also sympathy with the person with bipolar, because they are acceptably ill. People with depression are more likely to be told that they are weak, that they could stop it if they wanted, that it is their fault. Perhaps this is because there are more people who suffer depression than other mental disorders. More people and more publicity means that people know that they, too, could suffer depression. Knowing that 1 in 4 people will suffer at some point seems to give some people a feeling of superiority over others, as though they are saying “I don’t have depression, I must be made of higher moral fibre than that person over there”.
It doesn’t help that there is no simple answer to many episodes of depression. I know that stress and anxiety influence whether I will become depressed or not, but the anxiety is a bit random. Other people cannot identify a cause for their depression, it is simply something that happens to them.
I wish that people would think before they speak, and certainly not use the phrase “pull yourself together”. To me it has always sounded like “you are not acceptable to me unless you behave a certain way, you being ill and having low mood is not acceptable, I don’t know how to deal with it and I don’t think enough of you to try.”
So please, if you are a person who has said or is thinking about telling someone with depression to “snap out of it” or “pull themselves together”, think again, and try to listen to what that person is telling you about how they are feeling.