This post is all about relationships. Not just romantic ones (otherwise there would be Taylor Swift references everywhere), although all the things written here probably apply to that too. Depression leads to a total transformation in all aspects of relationships, and that needs to be understood and respected if people with depression are to be treated with the God-given dignity they deserve. I really didn’t like writing this for reasons that should become obvious. I wanted to share a bit of my story to help and encourage others and to understand myself better.
I describe myself as an extreme extrovert. If I am left to myself for five minutes I start looking around for other people. Like a needy puppy I constantly want to be around people. This was undoubtedly fueled by attending a boarding school. I was in a dorm with over 20 other guys and I knew a lot of them really well. Even the ones I didn’t know as well I was still friends with and still enjoyed being around. Not that we had much choice, whether we wanted to or not, we were always around each other.
In addition to this where I grew up I was taught that relationships were the most important thing in life and that we needed to prioritize them. I think this is one of the best parts of Kenyan culture. Whether that is the relationships with friends, family, or God, it needs to be the focus. It only takes a moment of thought to see how this is true. Relationships are far more important than work, academia, money, sports, etc. Although tragically the UK is not like this, which needs to change.
The two points above mean that I was in an ideal spot to put a lot of energy into relationships. I learned how to have a lot of very close friends. I had a constant stream of energy which allowed me to maintain lots of intense relationships. I put more energy into these than into things such as sports, or definitely academics. What it meant was that there was rarely a time that I needed to be alone. My friends were almost always doing something fun, or were up for it. I am so grateful for those friends, and I recently reconnected with some which was a great blessing!
I had learned a lot through this time, usually through mistakes which came regularly enough. I am sure my friends from school would be more than happy to share stories of these mistakes, as good friends would. I knew how to befriend people. I had learned so much about how to support friends. I knew that one had to be emotionally vulnerable with their friends (although I still suck at this, much to the chagrin of people who care about me). I was very confident in these relationships, which led to a lot of fun.
It didn’t help that our dorm parents encouraged us in this. I remember streaking with several of my friends at school, until we heard some girls coming. We quickly dashed back to our dorm, yet our dorm dad had locked the door to wind us up. I love thinking about his laughter as we begged him to open the door to save our embarrassment. All this to say that I was very content in my relationships! I loved it, and wish I could find that contentment again, although I don’t expect to.
Moving to university marked out a paradigm shift in my life. It was the first time that I would be forced to identify as a TCK in a world of non-TCK’s. It was me leaving the country where I had spent my life. The only semblance I had of home would slowly start to deteriorate over the next several years until it was completely gone and now I am left completely bereft of the security and comfort of home, homeless. Home is not just the place where family is as many people claim, but it is a lot richer than that. Moving to university stripped me of other aspects of home which can never be rediscovered. Things such as a place where people understand you, a place where you don’t have to see everything through other people’s cultural lenses, a place where you can be yourself.
This was the case when I moved to the UK. I had dutifully prioritized relationships my whole life, yet was thrust into a place where the rules of the game had changed. It would be like changing from a game of football to a game of handball. The object of the game is to put the ball in the back of the net, but the rules and mechanisms are vastly different. I didn’t know or understand how relationships worked, or how to go about them.
I was lucky to have a very good roommate who managed to put up with me for a year. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to be friends with others. In addition to that I was going through the biggest transition of my life, and didn’t realise at the time how much it affected me. He was great. He took an interest in my life, asked lots of questions, and was considerate. But I didn’t know how to respond, or suitably respond. He is a very amiable, yet my lack of knowledge of the rules of engagement rendered me incapable of developing the relationship as I would have liked.
For people who have never been to a country vastly different than their own culture may appear to be something that is an interesting facet of a culture, perhaps the way people eat, dress, or speak. However, that is just the surface. Culture is the way that reality is perceived and expressed. This means that things such as mathematics or the past are perceived differently. I choose these examples because they are parts of life that we take for granted, parts of life that we think are perceived of similarly across the world. However, the way these things are understood are vastly different from one culture to the next. Even an utterance such as 2+2=4 is not universally understood (for the mathematically inclined, this is not to cast aspersions on the necessity or truth value of the statement, but rather that some cultures don’t have a concept of it). This is how deep reaching culture is, it shapes our understanding of every aspect of our lives.
Relationships are no exception. Every relationship, boy to boy, boy to girl, girl to girl, boy to elder, girl to elder, child to parent, younger sibling to older sibling etc. is totally determined by how one views reality, or from the culture they are from. Each culture has its own rules and subtle nuances, which people from the culture will probably struggle to articulate, but be able to recognize and execute without a second thought.
Hopefully that helps explain why I was so clueless. I was in a place where I was desperate to recapture the deep and plentiful relationships that I had had at school, yet couldn’t. I didn’t know the rules of engagement, and didn’t know where to start in terms of learning them. Particularly without knowing what is offensive or not. I remember one week when I had inadvertently offended two of my friends by asking too many deep and personal questions. In my mind it seemed like a reasonable and logical place to start, or at least progress to rapidly, yet just caused discomfort in my friends.
I wasn’t sure when it was appropriate to ask my friends to hang out. Being the needy extrovert I am I would have been keen to hang out 24/7, yet I knew my friends wouldn’t want to. They were busy working. There were many people who I thought were really cool, and I was desperate to get to know, but didn’t know how to say to someone, “hey, I don’t really know you, but we should become really good friends,” without freaking them out.
Another common way for TCK’s to overstep cultural boundaries is to lead someone on. Our intense way of relating often means people can think of us as expressing romantic interest. I was awkwardly aware of this in my relationships with any girls. Sometimes I would freak out and want to distance myself, other times I would guess that they knew that I was being strictly platonic (sadly I use this word in the non-philosophical sense). I have no idea what the results of it were because I struggle to read people cross culturally.
Then along came a black dog
Of course, if you offered me this confusion as the only difficulty in building relationships I would bite your hand off for it (dog pun). Although the confusion has been devastating at times, it has been made far more complicated by depression. Going to shamelessly plug my earlier post on identity here, because it plays a big part in the struggle of building relationships. Essentially, different identity=different understanding of relationships, particularly if one finds part of their identity in groups! (https://noggybloggy.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/24601-depression-and-identity/)
I am desperate to be a good friend to others. I am desperate to be loved by others. I am desperate to be known by others. I am desperate to love others. I am desperate to be cared for, and to care for others. I am desperate to see my friends doing well. I am desperate to have relationships where I we can be vulnerable and dependent on one another. But depression hasn’t so much has thrown a spanner in the works, but systematically removed most of the machinery.
I hate feeling lonely. I hate feeling like there is no one in the world that cares for me because the physiology of my brain prevents such emotions. I hate not being able to feel compassion for others. I hate feeling angry at friends because of a malfunctioning amygdala. I hate that I am so bitter about good times with my friends. I hate that when I try and see myself through my friends’ eyes I see disappointment and frustration.
Before I would have thought that if my friends were going through a tough time I would feel sad, but I often don’t. Before if my friends were in pain I would have thought that I would have felt it to, but I often don’t. Before I would have thought that my friends’ successes and joys would be mine to, but it is rarely the case. If my friend was getting married I should be thrilled, but I often don’t have the emotional capacity to notice let alone be happy for them.
In conventional terms I am a very bad friend, a monster. At my worst points my friends could die and I wouldn’t feel sad, I wouldn’t feel grief, only anger and bitterness. I am not a good friend at all by that index, in fact, I am terrible, and there is very little I can do about it at times. I had to come back and rewrite this bit. It is so difficult for me to admit to myself that I was like this that I will probably be like this again. That I could look at the relationships with people I love and feel hate towards the relationships, and might again in the future. It is difficult for me to express how upsetting and challenging this is when it is part of me.
How am I supposed to be a friend to someone when I don’t feel like I care for them, when I am only angry and bitter towards them, because that is all I can feel? If I am lucky enough to navigate the anger and bitterness then I am left with an isolating apathy which totally discourages me from using what little energy I have to invest in relationships.
It is worth flagging up some of the more annoying symptoms of depression at this point, particularly shame and guilt. Imagine see all your friends, siblings, spouse, or parents. Now imagine the feelings you have for them turned into inexplicable rage. Or imagine them suffering and you not caring. It sounds more like a Bond villain apathetically looking on instead of a normal human being. But that is what depression does to you. Now imagine trying not to feel guilty about the rage. Imagine knowing that you should feel devastated for someone, but finding yourself not caring. It is shame inducing.
In addition all these feelings made the isolation I was feeling as a TCK grow manifold. I no longer wanted to reach out to anyone because not only did I not know how culturally, I lacked the ability to articulate my own feelings and struggles. I was too overwhelmed to. Anytime I tried to reach out it took gargantuan effort, and yielded only anger and disappointment. I wanted people to take my suffering seriously, but I didn’t know how to communicate because of the culture and because of the isolation and nature of depression. I never wanted to tell anyone. I wanted to fight it myself, partially because I was angry at everyone, and partially because I didn’t know any alternatives.
I was so lonely I wanted to die. Without exception all my relationships brought me pain. If they didn’t directly they would indirectly through the guilt and shame I felt because of my lack of emotions. This only added to the already crippling anxiety which had me in its grasp. I was terrified of people, of what they were thinking, of how angry they were, of how difficult it was for me to make friends. I was scared to go home because loneliness beckoned, yet it wasn’t any better away from home. I was scared to leave when I was there.
Because of the importance of relationships I persisted with them. I thought that even if I hated all of my relationships, and would not have batted an eye-lid if they all ended, I should persist because it is what God wanted. God clearly thought relationships were important, so I should continue to seek them out. I valued relationships more than my own life. I look back at many relationships with pride and am so glad that God brought me through them. Others I look back in regret and sadness. I am not in a good place to judge these, particularly when I am going through a bad spell.
In the first blog post (the story of my life, which is totally my best one, and not just because of the One Direction reference) I said that,
“There was one thing that had kept me going through this time. Even though I hated life and knew death would be preferable, this one thing still kept me going. Since I was born I have believed and trusted in God (even though you may not have been able to tell from my behaviour). I believe that God is good, that He loves all and that there is nothing more important in life than serving Him. On top of that I know that He wants me to love others and that He wanted me in St Andrews.
I would have been happy to die. I was ready to be done with life. But the only issue is that I knew that my life was not the most important thing. Serving a perfect and loving God was more important than my life. So I kept going. I knew suicide was not an option because God would not want it and His will is more important than mine.”
Now apart from feeling like an academic because I am quoting something I wrote previously,I bring this up because this is another relationship that was not spared. Me changing meant the way I relate to people changing, including God. I was never angry at God, but my apathy was still present. I couldn’t feel happy. God didn’t make me happy. Singing his praises didn’t make me happy, in fact it frustrated me. I took what precious little energy I had and put it into an activity which emotionally was on par to singing a Kanye West song, it meant nothing to me. I didn’t have the concentration span to finish a prayer or read the bible. In addition, anything that I did read about or think about or pray about would probably be forgotten because of the bad memory that symptomatically frustrated me.
Perhaps unexpectedly this is the one relationship where I haven’t felt heavy burdens of guilt. I know that this relationship can be like this. The bible never says be happy. It never says follow God and you will be sorted. In fact, it guarantees the opposite. It describes a world that is so messed up that we should expect these things to happen. In fact, many of the authors in the bible seem to have depression and so can often sum up my plea articulately. Thus, it was a relationship that I knew would be tough and would suck at times. So I persevered with it praying “Turn to me and be gracious, Lord for I am lonely and afflicted.” (Psalm 25:16).
The reason that this relationship was easier is that I had an example to follow. It had clearly been explained to me that it would be tough, that life would suck. There were people who had written down their vulnerabilities. I knew that what I was feeling was normal and ok in this relationship.
However, this wasn’t the case in my other relationships. I had never seen depression in action before. Or more accurately I had, all over the place, but hadn’t realized what it was. I had never had it clearly demonstrated for me. Because there is such great stigma around depression it leaves those suffering from it bearing unnecessary shame and guilt.
It is ok for someone with depression to feel the ways I described above. It certainly isn’t what it should be, and needs to be fought. However, it is ok to feel them. There is nothing one can do about it. Putting pressure on people who have depression in this way would be akin to getting angry at your friend who is on crutches because they slow you down. It is foolish and puts unhelpful pressure on someone when there is nothing that they can do about it.
In summary being friends with someone who has depression is tough. Hopefully this gives a bit of an insight into what it is like having the depression, and shows how necessary relationships are. But for people with depression they are so difficult through no fault of our own. So please be patient. Having said that depression is never an excuse for being a bad friend, whether you have depression or not. It is not an excuse for bad behaviour, although it can help explain it.
We need more people to talk about depression and we need more people to get interested in depression (particularly men!!!). We need people to talk about depression and normalize so that when people have it they can get the help they need and not be so isolated. At least 99% of people reading this either have depression or have a friend with it. It is remarkably common. We need to be thinking about how depression affects people’s relationship.
I shared this story to hopefully start a conversation. I want people to try and understand what going through depression and what being a TCK is like. This story was not exciting yet it doesn’t end there. I am aware that I am blessed with many amazing friendships that I would not give up for the world. I am so glad I have people who are willing to go through all of this with me.
One of the most important points of this is that friendship, at least how I thought of it, needs to be better understood. A lot of my best friends have depression. It does not stop anyone being a good friend. Each relationship we encounter requires that we engage with it uniquely, which is no different for friends with depression. Our needs and wants must be seen to on a case by case basis. People with depression just tend to have different needs than those without it.
This post was simply a story about what I went through, but I have learned a lot through it. The next post will be on what I have learned. Hopefully, I will tackle things like how to relate to people if you have depression and how to relate to someone if they have depression. So if you are keen to be a friend to someone with depression please read on. Depression leads to a total transformation in all aspects of relationships, and that needs to be understood and respected if people with depression are to be treated with the God-given dignity they deserve.