I walked out of my therapy appointment yesterday. I don’t mean that I stormed out or anything – I politely told my therapist that I wasn’t in a great headspace and that talking about it was making me feel worse instead of better – but still. It felt like a rookie move. The kind of thing a sulky teenager would pull when things weren’t going the way she wanted them to. I felt that a real grownup would have stuck it out, pushing through all the bad stuff and coming out the other side. Because that’s really what talk therapy is, isn’t it? Wading through the shit and dealing with it, with the outcome of all that hard work being that you’re a better, happier, healthier person.
Except yesterday I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, wade. Talking wasn’t getting me anywhere – I was stuck in an endless loop of the same anxieties over and over again, and rehashing them just felt like poking an open wound. Reviewing my situation wasn’t giving me any special clarity, my therapist’s insights weren’t helping, and I was getting more and more frustrated and upset as the hour went on. It felt so stupid to interrupt my workday, drag myself halfway across the city and pay good money just to sit there feeling terrible. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to do something, anything, to shut off my useless brain. So I left, went home, and a crawled into bed.
When I told my friend about what I’d done, she asked, “Do you think that was you making the decision to leave therapy, or your depression?”
Framing a depressed person’s behaviour and speech as being influenced by their illness can seem helpful. I’ve certainly said things like, “that’s not you talking, that’s your depression,” often enough, both to myself and other people, as a way of mitigating negative self-talk. It works because it acts on the idea that depression feeds us vicious, nasty lies about ourselves, and that if left unchecked these lies will fester deep in our minds, crippling our self esteem and destroying our self-image. So when someone is telling you how worthless they are, how pathetic, how unloveable, the appeal of reassuring them that this type of talk is a function of their illness is undeniable. But telling someone, especially someone who is suffering from a mental illness and has spent years dealing with all the stigma that comes with it, that it’s not really them talking can be downright dangerous. Because once you’ve labelled someone’s voice as not being authentically theirs, once you’ve convinced yourself that what they’re saying isn’t coming from them but rather some invisible bogeyman you’ve labelled depression, you’ve taken away some of their agency. You think that you’re telling them something positive, but really what you’re saying is, “I don’t think that your words are your own.“
How does anyone talk themselves out of that corner? Once their words and actions become suspect, how can they make you believe that it’s really them and not their depression? How can they have any agency when everything they do or say is written off as being done or spoken by some sort of evil spirit possessing them? It’s a slippery slope from there, and one that many people suffering from mental illness have faced before. Because once it’s been decided that it’s the illness and not the person talking, then that person may be considered to no longer be competent to make their own decisions. And then things can get really, really bad.
Are my depression and I really two separate entities? And is it necessarily useful to create this other, this monster, that represents all of my misfiring neurons and dysfunctional cognitive processes? This is something that I’ve been wondering about, and I’m still not sure what the answer is. It’s tempting to believe that depression is a sort of slippery parasite that changes my behaviour in order to further its own agenda, like that ant parasite that makes them climb to the very top of a blade of grass in order to ensure that they’ll be eaten by sheep and thus pass the parasite on. But I’m not sure if it really works that way.
I’ve heard of cancer patients imagining that their tumours are evil invaders, and then meditating on the idea that their bodies are fighting these bad guys off. Maybe that works when there’s something measurably wrong with your body, when you can pinpoint the existence of cells gone haywire, masses that have formed, blood counts run amok, but my depression is, for better or worse, my own brain. If my depression is smart, it’s because I’m smart. If my depression is tricky, then it’s because my mind has given it the tools it needs to trick me. I can learn how to manage it, how to work with it or maybe even outsmart it, but I can’t cut it out. And though it’s tempting to imagine it as a sort of demon that seizes me, takes me over and forces me to do it’s bidding, it’s not like that. Not really. It’s just my poor, sick brain.
There have been times when I’ve felt relief at hearing someone tell me, “That’s your depression talking.” There have been times when telling myself that has been a useful way of checking in and re-evaluating a situation. But there have been other times – many other times – when I’ve thought, “If this is the depression, then where am I? And why do you get to decide what my voice sounds like?”
Sometimes I make bad choices. Sometimes I say stupid things, especially about myself. Sometimes my depression really does influence my self-image, how I talk to myself, how I behave. But I am still me. I am still myself. I have my own voice, and when I speak, the words belong to me alone.