I heard about the phrase “toxic positivity” recently, I think on a podcast about mental health I was listening to. It put a name to something I’ve experienced for a long time.
As I mention I live with often severe depression. My friends and family know this, as do many of my colleagues. However, a lot of the time when I am in a low mood, and I’m particularly vulnerable or tempted to be open about how I’m feeling, I’m worried about people’s reactions. Not because they’ll think that I’m losing it, necessarily, or that they’ll tell me to talk to my doctor or dismiss me out of hand.
I’m worried that they’ll tell me something positive.
That I need to look on the bright side.
That I need to practice being happy, and grateful for what I have.
That I’ve come so far. Look how far you’ve come! You’re doing so well.
What they don’t understand is that this makes the pain so much worse. I know how far I’ve come. I know how lucky I am, to live in a house, with relatively good physical health, with a child who loves me. They just don’t realise that at those moments when I’m especially low, I don’t care about how lucky I am. They don’t realise that when I’m being told to be positive, it hurts me, physically.
It’s like a spear being pushed into my stomach. Why can’t I be happy? What’s wrong with me? Why isn’t it as simple as they make out? It hurts. It dismisses everything I’m going through. I know that it’s all in my head. What they don’t realise is that it is physically in my head. Depression is caused my imbalances in hormone levels, particularly dopamine and serotonin. This isn’t something I can think my way out of.
When I’m being told these things, it completely invalidates my experience. It dismisses my feelings of depression by saying that I just need to not be feeling depressed.
I’m not a child, and you wouldn’t tell a child these things either. You would take them to a doctor or a psychologist and figure out what is actually wrong. You wouldn’t do what appears to be brushing off my painful experience.
“You don’t look depressed.” Friend, let me tell you about masking. I’m putting an enormous amount of energy in appearing “normal” to you, and as soon as I am out of this situation I’ll probably collapse in a heap.
For people who experience depression, being functional is work, and many people get to a point where there just isn’t any energy left to put into that work.
And they start looking for ways out.
Please don’t tell me to be grateful, to change my thoughts, to look on the bright side.
I already know how blessed and privileged I am. When I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, I simply don’t care.