Since we’ve lived together at the flat, I can track four or five main times that my friend has been very depressed. These episodes seem to be three or four months apart and when they happen he reports feelings of misery, self-hatred, hollowness and a creeping sense of futility. They usually happen at weekends. Alcohol is sometimes involved, but not always. No obvious events come before these episodes. I can’t easily trace them to romantic disappointments or work or family problems. His girlfriend dumped him shortly after he moved in, but that was over a year ago. Admittedly, he’s hardly torn up the social scene since parting company with ‘She Who Must Not Be Named’, but what he goes through seems to be more than your average romantic or sexual frustration. He seemed to suffer in the same way when we were at university together, and that was long before she came along.
I talk about my flat mate a lot. I’ll be on a date with someone, and find myself rambling on about him. I hope I do it with a certain charm, but ‘my depressed friend’ is probably not a recommended topic for first date conversation. When I talk about him, I’m careful to point out that he is a ‘functioning depressive’. His bouts of anxiety and depression don’t overtly interfere with his daily life. He gets out of bed, goes to work, feeds and cleans himself. His appearance doesn’t change. His behaviour does, however. It’s like I get a new flat mate, stripped of even the slightest interest in anyone or anything. He doesn¹t say hello. It’s like one of us is a ghost. Something small, but clearly important, goes missing when he’s like that.
When he’s having a depressive episode, he often blocks his Facebook account. I suppose it’s a modern equivalent of unplugging the ‘phone, but it also seems like quite a good metaphor for what happens in the world of flesh and blood. He’s not really there, not engaged with you or anyone else and nothing you are doing or experiencing seems to be of interest to him. In The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell (who was a very clever bloke, as if he needs my seal of approval) described the kind of men who wear their misery like a badge of honour. I can sometimes see my flat mate wearing his. ‘Everyone has stuff to deal with’, he once told me as I explained that I thought he should perhaps look into counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. I imagine a booming voice inside his head, probably his Dad’s, telling him that misery is a hallmark of life. Get on with it. This ‘man up’ attitude just doesn’t seem to do my friend any good, and that’s what worries me.
Yes, sadness and loss are inescapable. I myself have led a charmed life and I’m very lucky. The only funerals I’ve attended have been for people in their eighties, and the last time I spent a night in hospital was when I was three years old. I’m soon to be twenty-five, so I’m pretty fit and healthy. My parents’ marriage seems to work for them and my own heartbreaks have been minor. While I don’t earn much and have to do an almost comical variety of jobs to make ends meet, I don’t have serious financial worries. I’m warm, dry and more or less happy. If I look around though, I can see sadness. I can see the sadness of my cousin’s failed marriage, and the depression that has caused another cousin to drop out of university. I can see the sadness in the suicide of one of my secondary school classmates, and the sudden death of another. I can see unemployment, miscarried children and serious illnesses. Sadness is an inescapable part of life. But depression isn’t ‘sadness’.
‘Everyone has stuff to deal with’. Yes, they do. But what seems very clear to me is that my friend is struggling to deal with his ‘stuff’ on a level that I have never experienced and won’t be solved by simply ‘getting on with it’. It’s normal to feel sad in response to a break up, or losing a job, or illness, or the death of a loved one. It is less common to plunge into pits of despair every few months for no specific reason. His coping strategies don’t seem to be working and I think it’s time he tried some new ones. Ever since my sixth form psychology lessons, I’ve seen CBT as cheap, practical and effective. Of course, many people have good experiences with all sorts of therapies, from medication to NLP to psychoanalysis, but back then CBT just seemed a better option than spending years thinking about the importance of the sausage roll your mother stopped you eating when you were three or the significance of that dream where you’re having sex in front of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh. I’ve used CBT techniques myself, and have tried to illustrate its benefits to my mate a few times. He just isn’t buying.
I don’t think that he will any time soon, either. On paper, our lives are equally easy. But his is harder, because he is predisposed to anxiety and depression. I know it’s not his fault and that he hasn’t chosen to be that way, but I still can¹t help feeling frustration at his reluctance to seek outside help to treat his condition. But I can’t force this upon him. He has to make his own decisions.
I suppose that is, in itself, a symptom of depression – the idea that he is totally alone and unique in his suffering and that nobody can help or understand him. However, I hope that eventually I will be able to motivate my friend to confront and work on overcoming his problems. I want him to be okay. I’m not going to give up on him.