Posted by: unlikelygrad | August 12, 2014

on the social unacceptability of depression

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, many people are posting about depression and how to help people who have it and how to reach out and ask for help if you are depressed yourself.

As someone who’s suffered from depression on and off for much of my adult life, and part of my pre-adult life as well, I think that most of these people have no clue what they’re talking about.  It’s hard enough for someone who’s depressed to reach out for help, just by the nature of the disease.  But society makes it even harder because of the nature of our modern culture.

In modern America, and (I imagine, anyway) much of the western world, it is not socially acceptable to have any “negative” emotions in public.


  • If someone asks me how I’m doing and I say, “OK,” they say:  “Just OK??!!”  There’s an element of surprise, because the only socially acceptable answers to that question are “fine” or “great”  something of that ilk.  And God forbid I should say, “Things aren’t going so great right now.”  (I always try to answer this question honestly and people look at me like I’m growing a third eye when I say anything remotely negative.)
  • People apologize, all the time, for being sad about appropriately sad things.  For example, in Allie Brosh’s interview on Fresh Air she apologizes repeatedly for getting choked up when she talks about the period where she was suicidal. (BTW, if you haven’t read her essay on depression, you ought to.) I’m sorry, but that sounds to me like a very scary period of one’s life and something that one ought to have strong feelings about.
  • Another apology story: I was having lunch with my mother-in-law one day (back when I was married).  She was talking about her mother’s Alzheimers, which had gotten much worse that year, and started crying.  Of course she immediately apologized for crying in public.  I told her, “Look!  Your mother has been suffering from a horrible disease, and now she can’t remember you, and she’s dying!  It’s sad!  You do not need to apologize for crying about it; go ahead and cry!  It’s healthy to grieve!”  She was a little taken aback, but grabbed a Kleenex from her purse and proceeded to cry even more.  But she couldn’t stop herself from apologizing again.

I look back at my own life, at my own depression, and see this pattern.  I wanted to reach out for help, but I couldn’t, because God-only-knew how they would react if I told them how I was really feeling.

During the second period of my life when I considered suicide (the first was when I was a teen), I had some close and caring friends who tried to check in with me often. They knew, by that point, that I was married to an abusive man who limited communication, and I would let them know what was going on via my LiveJournal account (which he didn’t know about at that point–he hadn’t yet started tracking my every move on the web).

One day, I left the house with the specific intent of committing suicide. It didn’t happen.

When I came back, this is what I wrote for my friends to read: “Today I was depressed. Really depressed. Really really depressed. Really, really, really…well, you get the picture. So I went on a walk.” Then I talked about something traumatic (that happened to someone else) I had witnessed while out on the walk. Then I said: “So maybe my life isn’t that terrible after all. Bad, yes. But not terrible. I came home and hugged my kids extra tightly.”

No mention of suicide. No, God forbid that I should ever tell my closest friends that I wanted to do myself in, that I had a plan of how to do it, that I went out intending to put that plan into action. In fact, I didn’t tell them that was what happened that day…for a good 6 years after that incident. Because even a person like me, who is socially unacceptable enough to reply “not too great” when someone asks me how I’m doing, knows that the fewer negative emotions that are brought up in public, the better.

There is nothing wrong with being sad. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. There is nothing wrong with grieving. There is nothing wrong with being angry for a good reason (like finding out that your kids were endangered). It is bad when people let negative emotions like fear completely govern their lives, but the feeling and expression of these negative emotions is not wrong. It is time that society understands that and acts on it.

Until that happens, depression will remain a hidden disease and we will be caught off guard every time a celebrity commits suicide.


  1. I always thought depression happens when somebody goes through a terrible experience. Because depressed people I came across were invariably sad and grieving. But later found out that (in some cases) sad and grieving people were not depressed. They were sad and grieving, but they were full of effort to seek happiness, accomplish something, better their present pitiable condition, etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: