Friendship and depression

Why friendship is sometimes difficult for those with depression

Why friendship can be difficult for those with depression

I value friendship. I would go as far to say that experiencing genuine friendship, where you can be completely and utterly yourself, can be one of the most positive aspects of anybodys life. There is an old saying that attests that if you have as many good friends as you do fingers on your right hand then it’s a good life. There is certainly some truth in this saying. Friendships are vital for a person to feel connected to the world. So often we find our days spent making small talk where our voices and opinions are narrowed down to benign comments about the weather and minor frustrations over office stationery. I’m fairly bad at small talk, being a little bit of an awkward dork, so Im ashamed to say that I probably spend a good part of my day, and therefore by default the majority of my existence, being bland. If weekend Jules met office Jules, they quite possibly wouldn’t get on.

I believe that friendship is a particularly important resource for those of who suffer from a mental health issue such as depression. Speaking from experience, I know how depression can bring with it the sensation of being cut off from the world. I know how it can feel as if a literal, physical divide has been placed between you and those around you. As I have already admitted, I am naturally something of an awkward dork. However, during the darker times of my depression, the thought of walking into a party, holding a conversation with a stranger or even completing a particularly chatty supermarket transaction was enough to fill me with anxiety and dread. The thought of being in a busy room where I would have to talk to people, look them fully in the face and answer questions, without easy access to run to the toilet and hide felt to me at times to be akin to the seventh circle of hell.

I read a few statistics the other day that have genuinely upset me. One in three people who suffer from mental health issues report losing friends as a result of their illness. Moreover, according to research conducted by the mental health charity Time to Change, three out four young people fear the reaction of friends if they came forward as having a mental illness. This is unsurprising due to the stigma that is still attached to mental illness. Furthermore, the nature of depression means that is a destructive illness that can make a number of social situations difficult. For the sake of clarity and conciseness, I am going to draw upon my experiences of mental health issues during my undergraduate degree, which is a notoriously sociable time for many people. It is brilliant that university provides an opportunity to speak to and make friends with many different people. However, for many students with depression the social aspect can prove to be tricky.

During my own depressed times at university, I began to note how my communication skills would become scrambled. Anyone who links depression with a person being something of an articulate literary genius is very, very wrong. I took English Literature with Creative Writing as an Undergraduate which coincided with the time when I was beginning to fully recognise the extent of and get help for my depression and anxiety issues. I can more or less accurately trace my good and bad times through the wavering articulacy of my creative writing submissions. To put it bluntly, the submissions that I made whilst feeling at my lowest and most frantic can only be described as an outpouring of incoherent thought. It was as if my poor tired brain had bubbled up and my prose was the jumbled meaningless froth that had been pushed up to the surface.

This was sadly mirrored in my verbal communications with others. I felt unnatural when trying to hold conversations, having the sensation of being disorientingly distant from myself and my opinions. Distortion of thoughts is a common cognitive effect of depression, and is much less spoken about than other more well known symptoms such as low mood. Sometimes, I would blurt out what was essentially streams of rubbish. I found it hard to filter what was relevant or interesting. During these times, I became used to patient nods from friends or pained exchanges of glances. Often, I felt too anxious and wound up inside to even speak and would communicate through nervous little giggles or robotic cut and paste answers. The way that I would act with close friends was at times somewhat clingy, which I am aware must have been a tad annoying. Sometimes hugging them needily or grabbing at their hands nervously, or else showering them with over the top compliments.    

Depression isnt a visually appealing condition. I didn’t look particularly good on facebook photos during certain unhappier time, which can be off putting to potential acquaintances. I sometimes forget to have a daily shower or to brush my thick knotted hair properly. I’d wear whatever was comfiest which was usually my worn pajamas and my smelly old dressing gown. I’m not pretty by any stretch of the imagination but I do like to look smart and clean and this sort of behaviour doesn’t suit me. Self neglect is a common symptom of depression, as is dramatic changes in regards to weight loss or gain. Personally, I comfort ate beyond what was healthy and fixated much of my racing thoughts around msg drenched fast food. Id become completely dissociated with my body which I regarded as an annoying lump in everybody else’s way. During such times, Id swell grotesquely. My hands, which were at least still little, shook and my heart raced. There were times when I didn’t recognise my own face in the mirror which had bloated and reddened. Rightly or wrongly, we live in a society where our worth is often measured by our looks and my dishevelment made me feel like something of a social outcast.  

I wouldn’t for a minute give a squeaky clean moralistic image of myself during these times. Nor would I want to blame anyone who hasn’t shown me unwavering understanding and support. Depression is also difficult, and frankly unpleasant, for those who know the sufferer. Untreated depression has in the past brought out some fairly bad attributes of my personality. I could appear selfish, cold, forgetful of other people’s feelings and even, I am ashamed to say, spiteful. Moreover, I often found it difficult to keep my emotions to a socially acceptable level; picking petty little arguments and harbouring intense and misplaced dislikes. According to a study by Psychologists Michael F. Steger and Todd B. Kashdan, people with depression typically regard ambiguous social interactions as negative, due to the subtle differences in how they gather and process social information. Besides this, problem solving skills, which are vital in order to measure and understand social situations, can be negatively impaired. Basically, a person suffering from depression is more likely to deliberate and worry over possible negative details of an interaction that a non sufferer might more easily put to the back of their mind. This can lead to trust issues, misunderstanding and even conflict.  

My Sixth Form Philosophy Teacher once gave me some very wise advice that I have tried to follow, even if I haven’t always been one hundred percent successful. She said that it is always best to smile and say hello to everyone and treat them as if you are pleased to see them. She gave a thought provoking example of a boy at her own university who was often sad and alone who she always made the effort to acknowledge. She didn’t know at the time but he was suffering from depression and later thanked her for simply making sure to say hello to him. He told her that a simple gesture like that could help him cope better with the day ahead of him, having felt more connected to those around him as a result. That story resonated with me then and it resonates deeper with me now. If you know a person who may be suffering from depression then please make sure to be patient with them and to not make them feel any more uncomfortable within the world than they already feel. Moreover, always make sure to be able to separate the person from their depression, with its range of difficult to understand symptoms, just as you would with any other physical illness.               


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