In my recent internet browsings, I ran across a Facebook status from a friend who suffers from depression. The status was fairly simple. It basically said: “I’m so much worse than I used to be.” This language is in a lot of places. “My depression has gotten worse”, “this is the worst she’s ever been” and so on. But there is an important distinction between saying “my depression is worse” and saying “I am worse”. One of these is helpful and is an assessment of the seriousness and difficulty of a situation. One of them reflects back upon yourself, and can have some negative consequences.
Here’s the thing: when you are in the midst of depression you are not “worse” than you were a year ago or five years ago. Your situation is worse. You however are exhibiting great courage and strength by continuing to get yourself out of bed each morning and struggle through each day. YOU are amazing in the moments that your struggle is the worst.
Let’s imagine a situation in which it is not your brain or your body that is making things difficult for you. Let’s imagine that you’re navigating a wilderness. Things keep trying to kill you, it’s desolate and dark, you don’t know how to get out, and you have little hope of it getting better. You struggle to keep going. You find tricks to make light, to find food, to keep yourself putting one foot in front of the other, moving in the hope that something might change. If someone were to look at you, they would certainly judge your situation as bad, but I seriously doubt they would say that you were doing worse than you had in a cushier circumstance. YOU as a human being are surviving, growing. You may not be flourishing, but you are learning tools to flourish.
Depression is just as difficult a mental landscape as this imagined world. You are navigating. You may not realize how much skill you are navigating with, but you are still alive, you are still moving, you have created your tiny lights to bring you through the day.
But why does it matter? What’s so bad about using this colloquialism?
We all know language is important. We all know that people already feel enough shame around mental illness. Many people struggle to succeed in day to day tasks when they’re in a difficult time with their mental health. It’s easy to feel like you’re “bad” or you used to be “better”. There is no reason to continue to reinforce that message to people, and in fact reminding people of their own power and strength is highly important to recovery. Especially when someone is talking about themselves, they need to remember that their own judgments can cut down their self-esteem and make it even harder for them to recover. Saying ‘things suck right now’ is a way to keep your own value out of it: you’re still kick-ass, but depression sucks.
Each time we reinforce the idea that mentally ill is equivalent to broken, wrong, bad, or inept, we are harming those who suffer from mental illness. It is far too easy to be sloppy about our language when we’re referring to mental health, and too many people already do this. Especially when there are so many fantastic ways of describing how frustrating it is to deal with depression (jerkbrain is laying siege! Release the hounds!), why would we fall back on words that repeat to us that we are not good enough for the world or that we were better when we weren’t sick? Why would we reinforce to ourselves that we have an obligation to get better because we suck so bad now?
Repeat after me fellow sufferers from all forms of jerkbrain: I am not bad. I am no worse than I was before jerkbrain struck. I am striking out into a wilderness that no one before me has braved and I am STILL ALIVE. It is dark and it sucks and I am afraid, but I am STILL ALIVE. I have survived things that the neurotypical cannot imagine, I woke up this morning and I got out of bed and no one can imagine how brave that was. I am a kickass jerkbrain warrior. I am the best I can be.