Depression and Collective Denial

It seems that many people are so hell-bent on keeping up the façade of happiness and maintaining the castle of lies their lives are built upon, that it’s like a glitch in the program when someone puts their hand up and says, “hey guys, I’m actually deeply unhappy – in fact, I’m really struggling here”.

A few years ago I learnt that my brother, to whom I am very close, had been suffering from depression since his mid-twenties (he is now 34). He was seemingly in the prime of his life: he had become a successful software engineer despite failing his final year at school, his career was on the up, he had a house in the country, a lovely wife he had just married at a lavish wedding ceremony, and they had just celebrated the arrival of a beautiful baby boy.

But after what seemed a somewhat strange lengthy period, in which we didn’t hear from him, he told us that he was suffering from depression and was seeking medical assistance. He was seeing a councillor his doctor had recommended and was on medication to help him balance his mood changes.

We all, variously, struggled with the news that my brother had depression, and the times that we interacted as a family during this period were so weird or surreal – no one wanted to talk about it or acknowledge that my brother’s depression even existed. We just carried on with the lie that everything was fine and normal.

The suffocation from the denial we had adopted to cope with the depression my brother was experiencing reached a crescendo following a family holiday on the beach in Fetiye, Turkey. My brother at that point was deeply troubled – he was struggling, and no one wanted to go there. We all carried on like there was no problem, cheerfully playing with his baby boy in the resort pool, or mindlessly babbling on about how nice the Turkish weather was compared to London or how great the local food was – totally unaware and disconnected from how our own sibling (or son) was coping with life. The stark reality of how we manage to live in denial of what was really going on around us could not have been clearer.

My brother didn’t talk to us for some time after that holiday to Turkey. He was deeply troubled with the suffocating layer of lies and superficial happiness we projected. We were so insensitive to him; it was obscene looking back on it now. But my wonderful brother somehow managed to get himself out of the depths, and after some months was talking to us again.

He has since told me that talking things through with a good councillor was an enormous help, as was the yoga and meditation that he had begun practicing. He said that the difficult thing for him was us, trying to ‘sweep the problem under the carpet’. He felt he had to waste time in therapy dealing with our denial. He said he spent considerable time understanding the reasons why we needed to employ our denial to cope … or protect ourselves … and this understanding allowed him to get back to the main game of his depression and also see the problem was partly ours. An essay titled Why Do People Lie? was incredibly helpful in his journey.

I apologised for the Turkey holiday and promised myself that I’d never be as disconnected from him as I had been and just at least be open with him and ask how he was actually going, rather than trying to avoid the issue of his depression. He handled it well and was grateful to know that what he was feeling in Turkey wasn’t him overreacting or misreading what was happening. I told him we were all affected by his mental illness and learning, not only about his illness but about ourselves as well, that we would seek to be more compassionate and connected going forward.

Sadly, my brother’s life was recently rocked significantly. He lost a friend in a skiing accident when they were holidaying together. He was a close friend, and the loss has affected him greatly.

What troubled me was the way in which the grief my brother was experiencing was handled by my parents. Their immediate reaction was not to the loss that my brother was experiencing, but to how the depression might re-emerge and take a grip of their son again. All that my brother was seeking was time to grieve, but they seemed to be fixated on trying to steer him away from depression, frantically creating things to do, or see, or slapping on empty sympathy to deep wounds of loss and mourning. It was like they had become robots, incapable of expressing any real empathy.

Perhaps I may seem harsh on my parents, but I want to make the point of how inadequate we are and insensitive we can be in dealing with mental illness issues like depression. My parents are just representative of society as a whole. Despite being part of the fabric of our human condition, depression has only recently become discussed openly in polite society, and we are all learning how we can better manage mental illness issues, such as depression, and treat those who suffer more fairly and compassionately.

My experience in having a brother with depression is that we must strive to be more open and honest with ourselves, and each other, without fear of judgement or discrimination, and help each other to live with the mental illnesses that can affect us all. Living in denial is not an answer. Ignorance is not bliss for the people who are living with the problem front and centre.

Article by Sam Thinks

My brother’s depression has made me look around the world with more honesty. I’ve done a lot of research into the topic and have found that understanding a particular mental illness simply reveals we are all suffering under the duress of the human condition. We just fall at different stages of the spectrum. Living in denial of the pain and suffering in the world, in others and in ourselves, is often necessary for a while. However, it is also a blaringly false way to live.

One thought on “Depression and Collective Denial

  1. Victoria in Australia

    This article really touched my heart – people not knowing how best to help someone they love when all they really have to do is ask the person what they need; parents incapacitated by their fear for their child’s wellbeing; and a young man in anguish, struggling to understand why the most important people in his life are seemingly either not there for him or quite simply just don’t understand – or want to know – exactly what he is trying to deal with. So often we say nothing out of fear that we will say the wrong thing but when we do that, all we are really doing is causing people we care about to feel hurt, alone and abandoned.

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