Saturday, 20 November 2010

Friends and Perfect Strangers

I never thought I’d end up ever feeling like a character played by Michael Gambon, but sometimes life surprises us.

The character in question was from the Steven Poliakoff drama Perfect Strangers; Raymond Symon, a grumpy and eccentric old git, dragged along (against his inclination) to a family reunion, where the family in question has not seen him for quite some time. Not, in fact, since before his company went bust and he suffered a nervous breakdown. It’s a fascinating piece – much more interesting than I make it sound – and well worth a look in its own right. But for some reason, this weekend I have felt a strange affinity with this one particular character, and this one plot thread in an exquisitely woven tapestry.

Last weekend, I had a depressive episode. The first one in quite a while, and it rather knocked me for six. But worse than that, it happened when I was visiting friends in Oxford; friends who, until then, had never actually seen the worst excesses (or indeed any excesses) of my depression. There may even have been one or two there who didn’t actually know I suffer from it. And I had rather intended to keep it that way.

Because there’s still a stigma attached to mental health problems. And while I’m happy to try and break that stigma and the surrounding taboos by talking about it, both here and in person, I’m still too English to want people to see me at my worst. It makes me feel like a burden to have to ask people to cope with me. It feels like a failing to admit that I need help, or let people see me cry. (And yes, I know it’s messed up that I, or anyone else already suffering, has to feel guilty and weak because of, and in addition to that suffering. That’s depression. It’s a bitch. And it’s one of the reasons a lot of people don’t seek help as often as they should. And I know all that. Doesn’t make me feel any different.)

This weekend, I went out again – this time to a friend’s birthday party. And the thing is... I think I noticed a difference in the way I was treated by the people who were in Oxford the previous weekend, and those who weren’t. One guy in particular, who, he confessed to me, I had rather worried at the time. There was a concern in his voice that wasn’t there before, and I felt like I was being handled delicately; like glass or porcelain.

I don’t want to single this guy out so much though, because it’s not an uncommon reaction when people learn I have depression. Heck, I’ve had it from my own family. That sense of them not knowing what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to treat me now. Like I’ve suddenly grown an extra head, and they don’t want to appear rude by staring. It’s like in Perfect Strangers; everyone so delicately asking Raymond if he’s alright, but not wanting to mention the gory details of exactly what happened. So concerned, but so English about it.

It’s not so bad when you can talk to people about it, or when they only know about the depression in an abstract sense, and I’m still normal old me around them. They don’t have to adjust, and it becomes something like a hip replacement: something to be asked after, sympathised with, but not something that impacts them at all, that they have to do anything about. But sometimes something unavoidable happens, and I can’t keep my friends and the illness separated any more. Normal old me suddenly becomes miserable, crying, walking-out-into-traffic me, and yeah, I can see how that’s scary, no matter if you know me a lot, or only a little. If they’ve never seen that from me before, I’m not surprised people react like they do.

But I wish they didn’t.

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