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YOUR VOICE: Depression Pathologising My Own Identity

Hello, my name’s Will Turner and I’m depressed… No no, that sounds shit… wait, let me have another go.

Depression huh? It’s a funny thing…

Christ. I’ve been sitting here for about five hours trying to figure out how to start this arse of a thing. See, I was hoping for something half-confessional, half-ranty; informative, but showcasing my rollicking sense of humour; something that would let everyone know what an intelligent, witty yet tragically stricken little sausage I am. All I’ve ended up with is a grab-bag of aphorisms clichéd enough to make Jeremy Clarkson blush.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m in the middle of what the NHS calls a “severe depressive episode” (apparently ‘episode’ sounds more transient than ‘DEPRESSED’), and that Jeremy Clarkson is a talentless, xenophobic nob.

So, I’m depressed and the truth is that I don’t really like talking about it. This is apparently not especially surprising. As a man I have, so the story goes, been socialised into silence; socialised into being emotionally inhibited; socialised into admiring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and James Bond; socialised into only ever needing the 4 Bs – Beer, Barbecues, Beards and Bitches. For the ideal man – strong, silent, stoic – there just isn’t time to talk about mental health, not while there are careers to be pursued or firewood to be chopped.

I’m afraid I’m going to call bullshit… It’s not that men aren’t socialised in this way – they are – or that these regressive gender norms don’t induce silence – they do – it’s just that a narrative ignoring the other reasons behind male silence is half a story, badly told. I’m not trying to make any universal claims, I’m just sharing why I chose to stay silent as long as I did.

There are parts of my personality – and they’ve been there for as long as I’ve had any acute sense of self – that are either constitutive of, or predispose me to, depression. I’m not the ‘rainbows and cupcakes’ type, I’m cynical to the point of morbidity and I’m deeply, unflatteringly sarcastic. I don’t see this as problematic; it’s part of who I am, part what my friends like and loved-ones love. But, and this is a real Kardashian of a but, being diagnosed as depressed puts all of this in a different context. ‘Coming out’ as depressed makes it problematic.

Shifting from an informal paradigm to a medical one when you’re assessing someone’s personality or outlook or sense of humour makes a huge difference. My fear was that by telling anyone I am depressed I alter the threshold for what is normal behaviour and what is a symptom of mental illness. Perhaps this sounds a bit melodramatic or paranoid, and it could well be, but it happens in a lot of other medical contexts. If a healthy person has a rash? No problem – allergy, irritation – move on. A rash on someone recovering from malaria? Break out the biohazard suits. This dynamic, sadly but understandably, applies to mental illness too. Tendencies, jokes, facial expressions all become data, symptoms on which to base a diagnosis. And while under normal circumstances, suggesting that parts of someone’s personality need ‘treatment’ or ‘curing’ would be regarded as draconian social engineering, in a medical context this ethical reservation evaporates.

Bottom line: I was, and am, afraid of pathologising my own personality. That large part of who I am, how I think and the way I look at the world that predisposes me to depression is no less a part of me, or precious to me, because of this predisposition. Where on the spectrum my ‘personality’ ends and ‘mental illness’ begins is, to me, ambiguous and the thought of having aspects of my identity diagnosed as diseased or pathological was a huge factor in staying silent, even to the people I love the most.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be, or really want to be, a rainbows and cupcakes type, even with a lifetime of Valium and Citalopram, but having shared my diagnosis, I’m stuck wondering how I’ll demonstrate that I’m ‘better’ or ‘cured’ or ‘in remission’, the other pole in the medical paradigm. Or is it like alcoholism, will I be a ‘recovering depressive’ for the rest of my life? “Hi, I’m Will and it’s been 6 weeks since I last drank…bleach” – because that is fucking depressing.

Will it be enough for me to go back to my idea of ‘healthy’, how I felt before I was abjectly, hopelessly, depressed? Or will I have to be less cynical, less sarcastic, less chronically underwhelmed and generally less myself because everyone is on the lookout for a relapse, mindful that the depression might have metastasised?

I stayed silent because I wanted to avoid that ‘chintzy chintzy cheeriness, half dead and half alive’ that will come with ‘proving’ I’m no longer down or low. This impulse to stay silent and hope it goes away doesn’t come from a desire to appear manly and to impress all your bearded, barbecuing, breadwinner mates. It comes from a more universally human need: To be taken seriously, as fully human.

Being depressed, or being regarded as depressed, means that all your actions are suddenly evaluable within a medical context and can be disregarded as symptomatic of disease rather than authentic or valid expressions of self; agency and full personhood is called into question. The ‘chintzy’ John Betjeman quote above is from a poem titled ‘Death in Leamington’ – my home town – and to be quite honest the only reason I eventually spoke to anyone was because I had to choose between that half-life of chintzy cheeriness or a death in Leamington; the self-harm was getting worse, the suicidal ideation more frequent.

Silence in depressed men is a killer.

Regressive ideas about masculinity are part of the problem – maybe the biggest.

But they’re not the only reasons for silence. I stayed silent because I thought that by sharing my mental illness, I risked pathologising parts of my own identity, and that’s terrifying. No, wait, not terrifying… Nothing’s terrifying. Do I look like a pansy? Someone get this bloody lad a beer.

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