Our relationships with other people both play their part in how and why we became depressed, and the trajectory of our recovery. It isn’t easy to climb back up from despair without the support of others, but if you are a person who finds negotiating everyday relationships with other people problematic, then it can be so much harder to re-engage with the world – which is full of other people.
Contrary to what some people might think, I am a very shy person. If, when Sartre said ‘Hell is other people’ he meant the perpetual struggle with the idea of how we are regarded by others, then that perfectly describes something that has troubled me for much of my life. One of earliest memories is of how much I used to enjoy throwing myself about to music as a very small child. I must have been about 5 years old- and I can recall jumping around on front of the radiogram, watched by my amused parents – but then some time afterwards, at a birthday party, being told very firmly by another girl that what I was doing was very definitely not dancing. Was that when I first felt acutely self-conscious? If so, it has stayed with me ever since.
I overcame my anxiety about dancing when I discovered nobody really cared how you moved around to the rhythm. At parties you would have most likely found me in the kitchen talking to the one person there I felt confortable with, having a long conversation – or in the middle of the dance floor lost in the music. When you are dancing you don’t have to talk and you can pretend to be someone else. It was the attempt at exchanging niceties when the music finished that I always found so difficult. Reading the signals about whether to stay on the floor- or not. Eventually I just danced away on my own.
So many of us spend our whole lives paralysed by worrying what other people think of us when we approach them. I have learned ways of coping with my shyness by creating a different persona- someone with much more confidence who can perform when out ‘in public’. I’ve also had to do that quite often in the last year while talking about my book. I can allow myself to become someone else, who still has access to my ideas, just for a short period. It is both liberating but also very tiring because a performance is involved. But I still intensely fear those situations when I have to enter a room and find someone with which to exchange pleasantries. Somehow I am always the person who is anxiously standing alone in the corner with a glass of wine in her hand pretending to look at the bookshelves. I have never acquired that skill of moving from person to person working a room.
Talking to someone who is as anxious as I am:
Me: so how are you enjoying the conference then?
Other: its really good isn’t it…when did you arrive?
Me: Yes it is…so are you presenting something?
Trying to join a conversation in which I automatically make the assumption I am an unwanted interloper.
Me: hi- how are you? I haven’t seen you both for a while?’
Other 1: so tell me more about this…I didn’t catch your reply just then.
Other 2: yes, it’s noisy in here isn’t it?
(Very awkward couple of minutes that feels like eternity while conversation continues, and I don’t know if I should move away- or stay until one or the other turns and sees me…)
I can so clearly remember those occasions when the conversation has gone something like:
Me: Hi, may I join you?
Other: actually we’re having a private meeting here.
Me: oh my apologies. (Heads back to pick up another glass of wine and examine the book case).
Indeed I can still tell you exactly when this has happened, where and with whom. Because I’m also quite sensitive and thin-skinned. I’m easily hurt and tend to feel things deeply. When I’ve been severely depressed there have been times when I’ve been paranoid- which has resulted in me avoiding other people even more.
However the other side of that sensitivity, is that when I’m functioning well I do seem to be fairly tuned in to the feelings of others- something that helped me to understand and empathise with my patients throughout my career. And in my clinical work I was able to manage my shyness because I was aware that the person I was treating was seeking my help, and being the real me was an important element of providing that. I have also come to terms with my natural introversion. I much prefer to live in my own head than in the real world, and the doing anything with people in large groups (who in my experience tend to be ‘dog people’ with some notable exceptions) is my particular idea of hell. Give me a one-to one chat in the kitchen with a cat person and I will be contented and relaxed for the rest of the evening, after I’ve danced myself to exhaustion.
When you are seeking help for mental health problems you can spend a great deal of time worrying about what the other person in the room, the therapist, thinks about you, rather than focusing on telling them what they need to know about you. You filter out what you are too frightened, embarrassed or ashamed to talk about until you begin to realize that, in that very room, you are re-enacting the most difficult encounters you have ever had with other people. Those painful moments when you were either confirmed in your fears or hopes about the motivations of others, or embarked on a lifetime of being too afraid to find out. And there’s the rub for people like us, because who we become is ultimately determined by our relationships with significant others.
So if you meet me and I seem a little diffident, I’m not being rude and trying to ignore you, I am simply shy. I’m not a natural at relating to other people and don’t have a wide social circle, but I hope I am a good, and loyal person to have as a best friend. And it is those close friendships and relationships that have been so important in getting through the last two decades.
PS: I also carry my heart on my sleeve- and find it very hard to tell a lie convincingly.