Please note! This post comes with a content warning for a discussion of depression in fiction, the different ways depression can show itself (or not), and references to suicide.
On a tangentially related note: This post was written for submission to a column anxiety weasels got too loud about. Mostly because I have no confidence in my ability to actually remember things accurately and what if I get it wrong?! So. You know. There’s that.
If anyone was wondering for any reason, why I haven’t commented on the Hugos… You know, apart from being the non-confrontational person I am in general, I was a little preoccupied attending a funeral and looking after myself. (If you’re worried: I am mostly doing okay by now, I think.) My thanks to all the moderate voices letting me keep somewhat up-to-date without being a ball of tears.
Lastly, my thanks to the lovely and wonderful people who looked it over for me and helped me get enough confidence to post it here.
And now, without further ado. A post below the cut!
The Faces of Depression
Depression doesn’t always look the way you think it looks. It’s a sneaky bastard and, if it wants to, it will hide behind bright smiles and tears of laughter. Depression can steal away the brightest, loveliest, liveliest of your family.
And you will be left behind, wondering. Why didn’t you notice? What didn’t anyone see? How could we not tell? Because they were the brightest of us, the shiniest, the most energetic.
Depression doesn’t always look like someone who hasn’t showered in a week, hasn’t left bed for the past three days. It doesn’t always look like someone crying their eyes out or someone perpetually unable to see the joy in anything. Those people exist. Let me stress that. There are people out there for whom depression looks exactly like that.
I know they exist. There has been a time when depression looked that way for me, even. As I write this, I am not depressed. I watch for the symptoms I’ve had before and throw any and all defense mechanisms I can find at them when I see even the slightest hint of anything because I am never going back there. Never. I can see the depression, lurking there at the edge of my emotions, threatening me whenever I get pushed that little bit too far. I live in fear of people not believing me when I say it’s back because I’m so damned good at smiling and pretending that everything is okay. I live in fear of not recognising when depression has found a way past everything I’ve thrown at it and all the barriers I’ve built because it just doesn’t look the way I’m told it looks.
Even when I know better. My depression is not Marvin’s depression. It is not Eeyore’s depression. In several hours of thinking and combing through the pile of books I’ve read, these are the books I’ve come up with to add to the list of “Characters in SFF who struggle with depression” that gives me any confidence I’m adding ones that fit:
– Chime by Franny Billingsley
Add The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Winnie-the-Pooh which I’ve both already mentioned and that makes three books. Out of a sample of about 750. Just three books that deal with depression in some way. Chime is the only one that resonates with me, but that’s partially because Briony is so very honest about her self-hatred. If Winnie-the-Pooh is about accepting negative-minded friends as-is and H2G2 is about… whatever the heck is up with Marvin, then Chime is about nuance, and about what depression looks like from the inside.
I’m sure there are more SFF books about depression out there and I just haven’t read them, or that I didn’t pick up on the depression because it looked different from what we’re told it looks like. I know there are books I discarded because the depression intersects too much with other invisible disabilities and that other people would count them. I’d like to write a post praising the fact that depression has representation in SFF at all, especially since I suspect a lot of people find Marvin and Eeyore characters that say “You are not alone” because their depression does manifest like that.
I can’t write such a post. My depression was never really like that, not even at its worst, though it’s looked similar if you don’t look too closely. Marvin and Eeyore are depictions of depression that actually do me harm because they tell me that the way I experience depression doesn’t deserve that label. That the way my friends, some who have been officially diagnosed with depression, don’t get to use that label because their experiences are different and don’t match up with what we see in the media. (There’s also atypical depression, which may or may not be what I’m getting at, but is an existing thing and important to mention either way.)
I’ve written a character with depression. It doesn’t look like you expect it to look. Redoing the book pages for A Promise Broken, I wondered about whether to mention Eiryn’s depression in a content note along with the grief for a lost loved one and the bullying. Initially, I put it in. And I doubted. Eiryn loves school. She knows how to have fun. She enjoys playing with her friends. She loves singing. She’s lively more often than not. What listlessness she has is easily attributed to the fact that, at the beginning of the book, she’s a four-year-old who just lost her mother. She’s grieving and confused.
She also wants to disappear from the world, to go away and never come back. She’s four and doesn’t understand the concept of death that well yet or she probably would phrase it as “I want to die”. But I doubted because that, in and of itself, is not how fiction, whether SFF or not, has told me that depression looks. Even though I know better, I looked at my description and thought about taking that one word out because “that’s not what depression looks like”.
Others have written more eloquently than I ever could on the taboos surrounding discussions of mental health and invisible disabilities. Mostly, I remember facing dismissals and being told to get over things. That I should just smile and be happy and all my troubles will go away like they never existed. That I should just choose not to be depressed or anxious. I’ve never felt like I grasped what ‘hatred’ is supposed to feel like, but I think if I hate anything it’s those arguments. I hate them even more now. Because that whole “just smile and choose to be happy!” drivel? Never did me any good and it certainly didn’t help — Well, no matter. You’re not reading this to hear me vent, I’m sure.
A few weeks ago, I believed that if I wanted to call a character I wrote depressed, they had to have many of the classic symptoms: lethargy, melancholy, sadness, listlessness, no appetite, no energy, restlessness, sleeping all the time, etc. It didn’t matter that ‘depressed’ is the only word I could think of to describe how Eiryn is doing in the story. It didn’t matter that my depressions never looked quite like that. (The sleeping, though. Oh, the sleeping I did whenever I could afford to stay in.) It didn’t matter that kids can get depressed too. No, Eiryn didn’t look the way I was told a depressed person is supposed to look and, therefore, I couldn’t call her depressed.
I should have known better. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen friends live it. I still see friends live it in various shapes and forms.
And then depression stole a member of my family. The bright one, the shining one, the always-laughing one.
The “you would never, not in a million years, have suspected he was depressed because he was that fucking good at hiding it” one.
Depression doesn’t always look the way stories tell us it looks. So, the next time I thought about whether to rephrase my content warning, a small part of me said ‘enough’ and ‘no more’. It is important, incredibly important, that we break the taboo surrounding mental illnesses. Stories are a step towards that because it helps create visibility, empathy and understanding. Representation, accurate representation, matters. I’d like to repeat that some, if not many, people suffering from depression do have many of the classic symptoms. They should get representation and recognition! There is nothing wrong with writing a character whose depression manifests like that if you show it honestly and respectfully. There is value in that depiction.
But there is a problem when we (start to) consider those depictions as the One True Face of depression, or the One True Way to represent depression. Because sometimes depression looks like a social butterfly who goes through life showing the world nothing but a vivacity so bright you can’t imagine it ever going out. Sometimes depression looks like someone rolling on the floor with laughter like there is no care in the world. Sometimes depression doesn’t look like depression at all, not until it’s too late and you spend hours, days, months looking back and going “Did I notice it? Could I have seen this? How could I have done things differently?” Because surely surely there was some sign. Something you could have seen, some moment you could have intervened and the world would look different today.
There wasn’t. You couldn’t.
Because depression has many forms and, sometimes, it goes stealth until it kills. And that aspect of depression needs representation too. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness and to depression specifically, it’s already hard for people to ask for help. Because of the brain-demons that come with depression, it’s already difficult for people to admit that they need help, even. (And, if they can admit to needing help, actually getting it is a whole different matter altogether yet again, but that’s not really what I’m trying to say.) We don’t need to give those brain-demons more fuel because someone’s depression doesn’t manifest the way they’ve been taught it manifests and give them one more reason to believe they can’t talk about it.
So enough. No more. Eiryn is depressed, and if her depression doesn’t look the way we’re told and taught it’s supposed to look… Well. Sometimes that’s just how depression looks too.