“Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’ve been strong for too long.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
“The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.”
“The struggle you’re in today is developing the strength you need for tomorrow. Don’t give up.” ~ Robert Tew
“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” ~ A. A. Milne
“If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” ~ Maya Angelou
So, as a person with a set of mental health issues I follow a lot of mental health orientated blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages. And these blogs, twitter accounts and Facebook pages often post a lot of similar memes.
Now at first I mostly just scrolled passed the memes; for someone who has a commonplace book filled with favourite quotations I’m surprisingly not that fond of memes, but as time’s gone on I’ve began to find them gradually more and more annoying. Until it got to the point that they annoyed me so much that I thought that I should sit down and examine what it was about them that I find so annoying.
And I came up with this.
My pet hate is the one people are forever posting on Facebook about how:
“Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’ve been strong for too long.”
And I’ve decided that the reason it makes me grind my teeth every time I read it is that it just seems so insufferably smug.
Like the person who wrote it, and the people who are continually reposting it onto seemingly every corner of the internet, genuinely believe that they’re somehow braver – and by implication better – as a result of living with their depression than everyone else.
And it’s the same to a greater or lesser extent with all the others.
I appreciate that people are sharing these memes with the aim of supporting people who have depression to stop feeling guilty about it and to educate those who don’t have depression so that they understand that it isn’t about weakness or sufferers not trying hard enough; but it always feels to me like what they’re actually doing is almost romanticising depression. It’s as though they’re trying to make out that people with depression are somehow ‘special’, ‘heroic’ or ‘other’. I don’t think that’s a healthy approach to take to any sort of illness.
It’s the same angle that’s taken in all those cartoon strips floating around that attempt to explain anxiety by portraying suffers as special little snowflakes who just need to be handled with a lot more care than regular people.
I don’t have depression because I’m any more or less strong than anyone else. I don’t have anxiety because I’m any more or less delicate.
I have depression and anxiety due to some combination of a bunch of horrific things happening and my brain never having worked quite the way it should have done to start with.
There’s nothing ‘brave’ about spending two days barricaded in your bedroom with furniture piled in front of the door because the person you live with is away and your crazy brain has convinced you that there are dangerous intruders in the house who are lying in wait for you downstairs.
There’s nothing ‘special’ about a trip to the emergency room to have your arms patched back together because you’ve sliced them up so good that you can’t make them stop spurting with blood and you’re half way convinced that this time you’ve managed to hit a major artery.
And while, as I say, I appreciate that these attempts at destigmatisation are well-meaning, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to suggest that there is. I think that these memes are creating a new narrative about what a mental illness looks like, and who a person who suffers with their mental health is ,which in its own way is just as unhelpful as the one it’s seeking to replace.
Tell people with depression and anxiety that they’re special and brave and they’re likely to feel even worse about themselves when they can’t manage to function properly; because on top of being able to function properly they’re now also supposed to be special and brave, and they’re almost certainly not going to feel special or brave – they do have depression and anxiety after all - so, oh great, there’s something else that everyone else is able to do that they’ve just failed at.
I also don’t think that this romaticisation is helpful to anyone around the patient either – family, friends, coworkers – I’m maybe not just talking about memes here but the entire campaign that the memes spring from. And that’s because it doesn’t begin to convey just how painful, disheartening, and down right ugly it can be to have to take care of someone who suffers from moderate to severe depression and anxiety.
I think that the only way that we’re going to genuinely tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness is if we’re completely honest about the bad times, and just how bad they can be, rather than insisting that we’re just like everyone except that we’re a bit more antisocial and we sometimes find some parts of life a little bit harder.
Stigma in any area of life arises because many people are incredibly easily scared by things that they don’t understand. These memes annoy me because I think that they’re likely to make people more rather than less afraid when a genuine, unsanitised mental illness manifests itself either in their own mind or that of someone close to them.