What is 'normal' anyway?
I want to be normal. How many people have muttered these words during times of turmoil. How many people have wanted to trade their noisy racing thoughts, for a brain that was more peaceful. A brain that was numb and void of opinion. I know I have.
As I sit here, staring at the blank page, I can already feel my anxieties rising. As I begin to write, I find myself trying to imagine how anybody reading this will perceive my words. Type, then delete. Type, then delete.
The problem is, I rarely talk about these issues for fear of ridicule. I’m afraid that people won’t take me seriously, or that they will brand me dramatic. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Doctors, councillors, they all like to label stuff and hand out leaflets. Cyclothymia. Bipolar II. These are a few suggestions I’ve had thrown at me to try and define my troubles.
Professional people, friends, family, everyone has an opinion. ‘Cheer up mate.’ ‘What do you have to be down about?’ ‘Things can’t be that bad!’ Phrases like these are why I say nothing. Why I shuffle through life hiding the lows and pretending to be ok.
My anxieties go way back. The need for acceptance and the need to fit in is burned deep into my brain’s limbic system. I can pretend to be confident. Bravado can get me so far. But then the armour cracks and that ugly viscous fluid of self-doubt slowly leaks out. It makes you forget who you are. It stains your soul and the very skin you are printed on.
The problem is…
I have always known I was different. I grew up in Newcastle, often dubbed the party capital of the UK. Parties, fashion, clubbing, ‘getting mortal’, they are all part of normal life growing up here. I hated it. But if you didn’t conform, people would brand you ‘boring’. There is no room for introverts here. You will simply be crushed under the egos of narcissistic juggernauts.
Large crowds. Strangers. Drunk people. Rowdy and volatile situations. These are all things that send my anxieties through the roof. I spend most of the night on edge, analysing every detail of the room. Escape routes, possible threats, potential weapons. I have no control. And the only way to regain any is to analyse everything. To come up with a plan for every possible scenario. As you can imagine, this is mentally exhausting, and I’m usually ready for home well before midnight. But of course, you can’t leave before midnight, because that’s ‘boring’.
I spent these times, the best part of a decade; finding ways to try and subdue my anxieties. Meanwhile, I was still trying to fit in and maintain the illusion that I was a ‘normal’ socialite. Trying to last until 4am when the clubs closed. I wanted to be part of the taxi-queue victory parade for full-time partiers.
Now comes the bit I find difficult to admit. I found the only way achieve this, was to not think about anything at all. It sounds simple enough. But for me, the only way to achieve this is to get so off-my-face that my brain can’t think of anything to worry about. Or, at least, so it can’t remember any of it in the morning.
Looking back, this behaviour made me hate myself. It made me selfish, angry and often unapproachable. I would spend my nights unable to sleep and my days unable to get out of bed. I would snap at anybody that attempted to save me from myself. As I look out on my past, relationships lay wrecked in my field of view. Dashed upon the rocks for failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self-destruction. I wasn’t addressing the issue. I was abusing a coping mechanism.
The trouble with a coping mechanism is that it never addresses the problem. It doesn’t ever make you feel better. It just delays the onset of despair. And amplifies it when it arrives.
Creative people tend to think more. By this, I don’t mean they’re more intelligent. I don’t mean that if you don’t identify as creative that you have nothing going on between your ears. I just mean creative people are more likely to dwell on something that others may overlook. They pay attention to things in far greater detail. While this is our gift, it is also our curse. Attention to detail is the difference between painting a picture and a masterpiece. But it is also this attention to detail that makes us ruminate. It is the reason we can’t let go easily. The reason we play scenarios out in our heads over and over again. The reason we can always see how we could have done things better.
It is this ruminating that is often the catalyst for depression. Or at least, it is in my case. The constant battle with yourself to be better. The over analytical views you take of your work or yourself. The feeling that you don’t deserve any credit you receive. These feelings are all too real in our industry. Because in this industry, it is rare for you to come up with anything on your own. Clients give briefs to designers. Designers then give work to developers. When you reach the end of a project, it is often easy to feel like the team has carried you, or that they have handed you an idea. A councillor would label this ‘imposter syndrome’. It is the inability to accept an accomplishment, despite the external evidence.
So how do we deal with this?
Learn to internalise any external verification. When somebody compliments you, believe it and take it on board. Very few people hand out lies as compliments, so if they tell you they like your work, it’s likely that they do. Say thank you, pat yourself on the back, and don’t always discuss what you felt you could have done better.
Surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. If people are negative, stop taking their comments on board. Don’t associate with those who negatively impact your life or make you feel anxious about being yourself. One of the biggest problems in my life was believing I had lots of friends, when in fact, I had lots of acquaintances.
“An entire sea of water can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship. Similarly, the negativity of the world can’t put you down unless you allow it to get inside you.”
- Goi Nasu.
Don’t suffer in silence. If you have any doubts, anxieties, or if you are feeling depressed, talk to somebody. Hell, talk to me. Sometimes lifting the lid off it all makes the load seem lighter.
Look for flaws in others. I don’t mean this in the sense that you should make things difficult for people, or point out their mistakes. But notice to yourself that they do make mistakes, and realise that this is what humans do. Understand that you are not alone. Nobody is perfect, and recognising this can help you to come to terms with your mistakes when you make them.
Discover your fears. All anxieties stem from fear. You need to work out what it is that you’re afraid of and make an action plan to try and conquer them.
Discover what makes you happy. Most people think more money will make them happy. But the depression doesn’t go away no matter how much money they make. For me, I’m most happy when I’m helping people. I would rather give something away for free and help another human than use it to make some money.
Don’t conform. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. I am now virtually teetotal, because I don’t enjoy drinking. I never have. The coping mechanism is no longer needed. People may think it is boring, so what? In fact, people often have more of an issue with me not drinking, then I do.
Most importantly: Be true to yourself. Wear the clothes you want to wear rather than what society has told you is cool. Discuss things that interest you rather than ‘twerking’, or what ever is popular at the time.
Individuality is what makes us human. We should embrace and celebrate the fact that everybody is different. How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?
If you don’t agree with any of these points, then that is fine. If I don’t know you, I no longer need your approval.
I am what I am, not what you would like me to be.
Geek Mental Help Week is a week-long series of articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the web about mental health issues, how to help people who suffer, and those who care for us.