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Depression and Honesty: A Risky Combination?

Is it safe to tell others the truth about your feelings?

According to no less an authority than the ancient philosopher Cicero, “Friendship makes prosperity more shining and lessens adversity by dividing and sharing it.” I love this, especially the idea that it’s okay to share your adversity with others. I often doubt my right to do this—and yesterday I had to confront that doubt head-on.

Let’s face it: When you have a mental illness, your life is unusually stressful. There are not just the facts of the illness to deal with—symptoms, triggers, treatments—there is all the ancillary trauma of its consequences. Like looking at your credit card statement after a manic spree and trying to assuage the army of creditors that inevitably comes calling. Or staring at the plethora of texts and emails you haven’t been able to respond to and facing the mountain of work assignments that piled up while you were too depressed to function.

Those of us who have mental health challenges are, by definition, challenged. Most of us have been living with a high degree of stress a good part of our lives, and our endurance levels are stretched to the limit. We’ve gotten to the point where the fight-or-flight response kicks in over even the smallest things: I thought I’d already paid the phone bill, or what on earth am I going to make for dinner? And then, when the really big stressors hit, like physical illness or serious relationship troubles, we’re simply maxed out. Our stress hormones are depleted.

That’s why it’s so important to keep nourishment coming in on a daily basis, in whatever guise it may take: friends, family, therapy, spirituality, hobbies, passions, etc. We must replenish our constantly disappearing resilience as consciously as if it were hunger or thirst. It’s that vital a need—and it’s dangerous to get too close to empty. The spike in suicide rates across the country makes that tragically clear.

I mostly turn to friends these days when I need shoring up (although my therapist still gets his fair share of my worries). I’ve built a support system that knows me, knows my illness, and has a generally good idea of what to expect as it runs its course. I treasure these people, and that’s why I was so stunned yesterday when my best friend said to me, “All you ever have is bad news. You’re so depressing. It makes me not want to talk to you.”

He couldn’t have hurt me more if he’d plunged a shiv into my heart. To be told you’re depressing when you have a mood disorder feels like the worst kind of insult—doesn’t he know how hard I try not to inflict it on others? Doesn’t he realize how difficult my life really is? I tried to get logical: The undeniable fact of the matter is that I am going through a particularly tough time right now, and it comes with plenty of complaints. I’m dealing with my mother’s messy estate, I just got a diagnosis of cancer on my collarbone, my landlord raised my rent, my next book is on a demanding fast track. I’m juggling so many balls in the air I don’t dare stop to breathe lest I drop one.

But none of this sound and rational reasoning reassured my brain quickly enough to overcome the sharp jabs of pain and fear I felt. I heard myself babbling, “I’m so sorry, I’ll be more careful in the future, please don’t get mad at me,” and hated every cringing word. I’m not all sunshine and songbirds, God knows, but I also share my joys and victories with my friend. I have a wickedly dark sense of humor and apply it whenever I can to my woes. I always ask about his troubles and respond with every ounce of empathy I’ve got in me, which is a lot.

So what am I to do? Find a new best friend? Modulate what I can expect of this one? Censor my speech, my emotions, my reality? It feels like such a loss and so horribly unfair. I’m trying hard to stoke that sense of injustice because I know that at least that way lies anger, and anger can be a healing fire. But deep in my mind, I wonder—is he correct? And do I have the right to cast more shadows into the world, when I know all too well how dreadful the darkness can be?

Damn it, yes. We all have the right to share our stories, be they happy or sad. But the willing ear of a friend is a precious thing, and I realize I shouldn’t take it for granted. Being bipolar, balance doesn’t come easily to me. But I’m going to attempt to leaven my complaints with more humor and ease up on the screeds; ask a question or two first instead of launching straight into a diatribe. Maybe we’ll both feel better that way.

But one thing I know for certain: I won’t remain silent about my sorrows. I’ve learned by now that doing that is a sure-fire way to deepen my depression. I’m willing to try to step more lightly, but I will not go underground.

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