Today is ruok day. No, it’s not, as I first thought, a day to celebrate the noise that crows make. It’s actually a day dedicated to raising awareness of mental illness and depression. And maybe crows also.
While I fully support the day, I have always had a couple of reservations about the title. First, if you asked a depressed person if they’re okay, you know what answer you will usually get? “I’m fine.” Because let’s face it, asking someone how they are is usually an insincere question. We say to each other every day “How are you today?” but how often do we really want to know? What happens if someone is honest and starts telling us how they really are?
The truth is, most of us are less compassionate than we think we are. I include myself in that, although I’m trying to learn. And that’s not a criticism, because actual, genuine compassion is *hard*. Even if we do listen to somebody else’s problems, it often makes us uncomfortable, and our urge is usually to give them advice or “fix” them. Which feels unselfish, but is often based on our own discomfort, our desire to get away from difficult topics and what they make us feel. It’s really hard to genuinely listen to somebody telling you they are not okay.
And let’s face it, society is geared toward success. Even when it’s superficial or false. We are attracted (and I’m not just talking about love or relationships, I’m talking about friendship, acquaintances, work, everything) toward people who give off confidence and happiness. Maybe we’re hardwired that way, or maybe it’s how we grow up, the values that our particular society tells us are important. Maybe we are attracted to people who seem to have the confidence that we all feel we lack. Whatever the case, it’s brave to admit that you’re not doing okay, because often it feels like shooting yourself in the foot. Like going to a speed-dating event wearing a t-shirt that says “I’m lonely”. It may be true, but it’s not going to increase your chances. Similarly, people with depression know that admitting you’re depressed often means you will be less likely to draw people to you. And if part of your depression or anxiety is social, then it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. And so you don’t talk about it.
I have suffered from depression and anxiety for at least twenty years. Probably my whole life. It has varied in intensity, but it’s always been a constant, at least at some level. It took me a long time to recognise it as such; I just thought I was seeing the world realistically and everybody who was happier was just an idiot 🙂 I didn’t realise how much it affected my life. Looking back, I can see more clearly. How my depression led me to give up on things rather than persevere, because it felt hopeless. And so I gave up on people, friends, relationship, and gave up on careers, my dreams, probably more easily than I should have. I still do, sometimes. In my twenties, my anxiety made me at least somewhat agoraphobic. And to compensate, I came to rely on alcohol heavily anytime I had to socialise. There were a lot of events I couldn’t go to because of my anxiety, and a lot more that I could only attend in the form of completely-sloshed-Ben, which brought its own problems. Or I went the other way and withdrew into myself. I don’t drink much anymore, and I have gotten over a lot of my anxiety, but there are still situations, particularly social ones, where it comes back, and I still tend to be more of a hermit than is really good for me.
Anyway, the point of this story is that, despite that, I think I have come a long way, and lead for the most part a happy, fortunate life. I don’t talk about my depression a lot, because although it has always been, and probably always will be, a part of me, it doesn’t define me. It isn’t who I am. There are a lot of other aspects to me, and I feel like I am able to function largely as a “normal” member of society, whatever that might be. And talking about my depression, as I suggest above, sometimes feels like a step backward. Because I don’t want people to look at me as “that depressed guy”. I’m not just that, and I don’t know if our society’s attitudes have developed to that extent. There *is* still a stigma, a negativity toward depression and anxiety. And we need to fight those attitudes, if we want people to be able to talk about it, to be honest about it. It’s not just about saying to somebody, “are you okay?”
Which brings me to my second reservation about the title of the day. “Okay” is a kind of broad term, and to some extent saying “I am not okay” has connotations beyond simply feeling bad. It implies that you are not normal, that you are defective, or deficient in some way. Lacking.
So I want my message for the day to be this: You are okay. No matter what mental illness may affect you, that’s not all of you. It isn’t who you are. It’s a part of your thought patterns, maybe part of your genetics. It will influence you, and will affect your life. But it’s not *you*. It’s not the core of you. In our core, I believe, we are all perfect, all okay. We all have flaws, but they are surface flaws, patterns of behaviour we have learned or that are ingrained, that we can learn to change or to deal with. But that’s not us. Inside, we are all kind, smart and loving. We are all okay.
So if you know people with depression and anxiety or mental illness, I’d encourage you to challenge the way you look at them. Yes, support them if you can. Listen to them. But try not to think of them as somebody who there is something “wrong” with, or who is in some way defective. Try to see all the awesome things about that person, the ways that that person is a success, the ways you are lucky to have that person in your life because of all the great attributes they bring. Their intelligence, maybe. Their humour. Their self-awareness. Their kindness. Whatever it is that they bring to your life. Recognise that their mental illness is just one aspect of them. And try to love them firstly as a human being like yourself, rather than some “other”.
The truth is, mental illness is not an either or thing. It’s a continuum. There’s not a line somewhere between mental illness and mental health that we can all clearly stand on one side of. Some of us might straddle that line all our lives. Most of us probably slip in and out of “mental health” through our lives. That’s not to deny that some people really do suffer more than others from it. But that’s just a question of degrees. It doesn’t make them different. The aspects of people that we define as “mental illness” are inside most of us, to one degree or another. We all worry, we all suffer, we all feel anxious, we all feel hopeless, we all feel afraid. That’s being human. We are all broken. We are all defective. And we are all beautiful, loveable, amazing. We are all okay.