Sunday, December 31, 2017

Depression and Relationships - Alienation and What We Share

In January of 2016 I wrote What Non-Depressed People Should Know AboutDepression. I want to dig deeper into depression and relationships, especially, but not exclusively, for the benefit of people who have never experienced clinical depression but need to live and work with those of us who have.

If you suffer from depression or are sufficiently close to someone who does, you already know; depression impacts relationships. Some of the ways are obvious. At the simplest level, our abundant negativity and scarce enthusiasm can make us a drag to be around. Likewise depression saps energy a person would otherwise put into keeping a relationship healthy. But it is also alienating and divisive in other ways.

Differences That Cause Alienation

I think a lot about what divides and alienates people. This can be broad social and cultural forces like race, language, religion and politics, but it can also be more individual. Depression, in this regard, is less like belonging to a minority religion than being a conjoined twin.

To me conjoined twins are an extreme and instructive example of people who’s lives others simply can’t understand or identify with. To me, this is much more interesting than their bodies or the science behind this particular type of twinning. The impact on their relationships must be immeasurable.

I imagine one of the most alienating things about being a conjoined twin, ironically, is the isolation. Being a conjoined adult is so rare an experience that nobody you know (except your twin) can possibly understand[1]. I am sure the twin’s empathy is priceless, but that’s one person. What about everybody else in your life? It seems to me that the best you could hope for is that those close to you take you at your word for what it is like and cut you some slack when they don't understand your feelings about it or how you choose to cope.

Likewise, when I think about people who believe they have been abducted by aliens [2] or believe themselves to be psychic [3], I am much less interested in whether or not they are right than what it does to their relationships.

I hope these comparisons don’t insult anyone. My only point is that these are alienating experiences. Depression is common, relative to my other examples, but I believe the alienation and other effects on relationships are analogous.

The Truth We Keep In Our Heads And The Necessary Lies We Speak

If you believe yourself to be an alien abductee you probably have learned not to share that fact with any but the most select people. You probably share the details of your abduction memories with an even smaller group, if anyone. If you are depressed the people around you may or may not be sympathetic, but even if they are most don’t need to know the doubts, fears or horrors going on in your head. In the case of horror, if the same images and scenarios came to you in a dream you could tell people and they would either console you or laugh it off with “wow, what a horrible nightmare.” However, we human beings tend to hold both ourselves and others responsible for our waking thoughts [4]. We tend to believe they say more profound things about us than our dreams. We may believe dreams mean something, but but we put brackets or quotes around anything they might say about us as people, about who we are. After all, it is “just a dream.”

There are lots of things anybody (depressed or not) might think or feel that are inappropriate to share. Depressive thoughts are different from an isolated, passing thought of an unspoken insult or speculation about how someone looks naked—other things best not shared. It is the nature of depression to interfere with, interrupt and replace productive, pleasant and welcome thoughts with their opposites (from trivial worries to unspeakable horrors) and do so on an ongoing basis. During a serious depressive episode this can so overshadow everything else going on in a depressed person's mind that it characterizes his or her thoughts, perhaps for an extended time. During such an episode, if someone were to ask what you were thinking about, the honest response would be to detail the unwelcome thoughts. However, I think many depressed people, especially those with chronic major depression, learn to carefully consider their audience and give a response that is more appropriate and less honest. That is, if one is thinking clearly enough to give the response that much consideration [5].

Depressive thoughts of different types can have different effects both internally and relationally. A depressed person’s frequent thoughts of failure, whether at work or in a relationship, may be good to share with someone who can help contextualize them.  They may be able to reassure you and help sort out any rational ones that need your attention.

The Suicidal Ideation Minefield

Persistent suicidal thoughts are different. This is a difficult subject and writing about it makes me nervous, but I think it is too important to skip over and I happen to have a lot of experience with it. Before I get to what I want to say about suicidal thoughts and relationships, I need to say a few things about suicidal thoughts themselves.

If you have suicidal thoughts you need to be in touch (and honest) with at least one mental health professional. If you are not, please stop reading now and reach out a doctor, a suicide prevention line (, crisis center or someone who can help you find such a resource. It is also good to have someone close to you who knows you are struggling with suicidal thoughts and can help keep you safe. However, friends and family can not do certain things trained, licensed professionals can do. Friends and family can be extremely valuable supports but are not a substitute for the resources that come with professional help.

The idea of suicide is so emotionally treacherous that outside of a doctor or therapist’s office (where you need to bare all so they can help you) one must speak about it with care. This is always true whether speaking generally or saying something completely specific and personal. For the depressed person who has suicidal thoughts, this is complicated by the issue of their own safety. Not all suicidal thoughts are equal yet the differences are not always clear, especially to someone who is upset by the fact that you even said the word “suicide.”  In many cases, and for good reason, people will immediately start trying to assess how likely you are to attempt suicide in the immediate future.

If suicidal thoughts are new to you (or you have started planning a suicide) and that is why you are in a professional’s office telling them all about it, this kind of assessment is exactly what you want. They are trained.  It is their job to keep you safe and there is every likelihood they will read the situation correctly and respond helpfully. If you are like me and you have been living with daily, very low level, suicidal ideation for many, many years, there isn’t much to talk about unless it changes. As I will show below, this is very different from keeping a potentially deadly mental health problem to myself. I do not ignore my suicidal thoughts, hide my depression, or pretend that everything is OK and I don’t suggest that anyone else does.

When the suicidal thoughts change or get worse action needs to be taken. Some years ago my suicidal thoughts changed dramatically. I caught myself making a gravely detailed and serious plan and checked myself into the hospital. One of my medications had quit working and I was in fucking trouble. I am certain not keeping those suicidal thoughts to myself was absolutely the right thing to do.

The daily, low level suicidal thoughts I live with, on the other hand, need to stay in my head. They, sadly, have become mundane and routine and only get the attention necessary for me to dismiss them (with varying success, depending on how depressed I am). They are as familiar, constant and reliable as the furniture in my office but receive even less comment.

I do not need to comment on these thoughts to the people around me. Moreover, I generally need to not comment on them to the people around me. If I did some people would be unnecessarily concerned or have other negative or unhelpful reactions. Because these thoughts are so common for me, I would also be crying wolf. I have, literally[6], had many thousands of suicidal thoughts over the last fifteen years, but have made no attempts on my own life. Yes, it is a very big problem that I have suffered from depression my whole adult life and that between fifteen and twenty years ago frequent suicidal thoughts became a regular part of that. However, the empirical evidence says these thoughts do not lead to suicide attempts. Having one such thought, or even several, doesn’t mean anyone around me needs to be concerned for my safely. Them knowing I had the thought would not be useful to them or me. There is nothing for them to do.

Different Kinds Of Relationships

Many of the people around me know I suffer from depression. Many of them know this includes suicidal thoughts. This general knowledge is good for a lot of reasons but beyond a very general outline of the problem more details would not be helpful or useful to most of them. Those closest to me know enough to monitor me a little and comment or ask questions if they notice concerning changes, for example.  Depressed or not, relatively few people know anyone's moods that well.

The People Who Do Not Get It

There are also plenty of people who so completely “don’t get it” when it comes to depression and other mental illness that they couldn’t be helpful to a depressed person, no matter what was shared with them. I once had someone tell me he “never had time to be depressed.” He’s a nice enough guy in most ways, but even if he is more clued in now than (twenty years ago) when said that to me there is no way I’m calling him for help. Being undermined by people like him (dismissive by simple ignorance) or their toxic counterparts, the dismissive and hostile [7], is a stressor depressed people don’t need. Identify and avoid. If total avoidance isn’t practical one can avoid talking about mental health: yours specifically, and the topic in general.

More Importantly: The People Who Do

These are not the relationships I am most interested in. I am interested in relationships where a person with depression doesn’t need to worry about being dismissed, undermined or preached to no matter what they share. I am talking about people who can be counted on to listen sympathetically if a depressed person shares or even overshares[8] with them.

In some cases the caring listener would feel burdened with the information. Others might overreact. There is always a balance to be struck. At least some people need to know something about what’s going on with you and surely people closer to you need to know more. Unfortunately their good attitudes, sympathy and good intentions don’t make sharing information they can’t use automatically constructive. And remember, I am only talking about people who can be counted on to respond positively. In this case I am counting “Oh my God! I had no idea it was that bad! I must help you find a better psychiatrist! Let me call Aunt Lucy right now!” as a positive reaction, even if you just told the listener your psychiatrist is great and there is no possible way poor, senile Aunt Lucy could possibly help.

Let’s call all such responses, from the burdened feelings to overreaction, as “positive but unhelpful.” Let us also agree that although they beat the hell out of being undermined the person fighting depression has good reasons to avoid them. Unfortunately this is done by withholding information.

Even more unfortunately, withholding information comes with its own costs.

The Irony Of Pushing Away

Depressive thoughts, no matter how brief, minor or familiar, come with a negative emotional payload. They can also be entirely disconnected from present circumstances. This means the depressed person you are with may be experiencing negative emotions that have no connection to what you are doing together, how they feel about you or anything else pertinent to the situation. You may see it on their face or hear it in their voice, but it may be best for both of you if they do not overtly acknowledge or explain it. This division in the depressed person’s thoughts and attention takes energy, something that can be in short supply to a depressed person. Managing this mental division, especially if it is not done particularly well, can be alienating to the people you interact with because your emotions seem inappropriate, you seem distant, distracted, grumpy, inattentive or withdrawn. Actually, you may truly be any or all of those things and it could have nothing to do with the person you are with or anything else outside your own head.

When someone with depression “keeps it in their head” rather than sharing they are making a choice to distance those thoughts from the people around them. This is often the right thing to do and it should not be mistaken for denial or withholding themselves from anyone. After all, the person with depression is not their thoughts. The depressive thoughts are an important part of the depressed person’s experience, not who they are. This distancing, along with the struggle to manage the thoughts themselves, is easily mistaken for disinterest or defensiveness, two behaviors sure to alienate others in short order.

We are not pushing you away from us. We are pushing a part of our experience away from you.

Trust Us, Should We Choose to be Quiet

Please trust the depressed persons in your life to know what to share. You may want to know how I feel about the meal we are sharing. You don’t want to know which suicidal image just popped in and out of my mind, or how long it stayed. You might think you do, because you care about me. Trust me, you don’t. There is nothing helpful for you to do with that information.

Another threat to relationships is the inherent irrationality of some depressive thoughts. Combined with all people’s variable impulse control and the potentially slow process of learning to manage one’s depression, it isn’t just the horrors of depression that can pop out of our mouths. It can also be stuff that is just embarrassing.

A moderately depressed person with sufficient self-awareness may do a pretty good job of sorting the rational and irrational (depression induced) thoughts in their head. Such a person may do a pretty good job of only saying the rational ones out loud. Someone deeply depressed, or not skilled at managing their depressive thoughts, may be at risk for saying things out loud that they regret later and/or sound totally batshit crazy to the non-depressed people around them.

Compromised Reasoning and Perception

Should a person who suffers from depression be more quiet than usual it could be for any reason, but it it may be that we aren’t sure which thoughts should or should not be exposed to the light of day at that moment. It does not mean we don’t care about the conversation or do not have an opinion. Quite the opposite; we may be reticent because we know we will be able to give a more rational, valuable and helpful response later.
For example, if I witness someone being rude at work when particularly depressed I am more likely to believe it characterizes that person than I will at another time. When asked about what I observed I may choose to give a minimal or delayed response if I know I’m depressed. This isn’t because I don’t care about the rude behavior and its consequences. Rather, it is because I want to respond as appropriately and constructively as possible. This may be better than a hopelessly depression-skewed response: “They have both always been assholes and always will be. I should quit.”

A depressed person could also be so distracted by depressive thoughts that they miss the rudeness. I sometimes experience this as an effective dulling of my senses [9]. For people like me who have lived with it for a long time and have become aware of so many ways it effects us something subjective like our own perception of a raised voice may be suspect to us. An appropriate response may truly require later thought, preferably later thought less filtered through the fog of depression.


This is all not to say that people with depression don’t do things that harm our relationships or push people away that we should not, that do not have good reasons behind them, or that shouldn’t piss off the people around us. Of course we do. Some of them have to do with depression. Some do not.

What I would have anyone take away from what I have written here is that some of what depressed people do that may seem negative is, in fact, positive given our circumstances and experiences. I would have non-depressed people cut people with depression some slack when we pull back a bit or don’t share something.

I would have my fellow people who suffer from depression think about what they do. Maybe they feel guilty doing some of these things but don’t need to. Maybe they do too much of them. Maybe not enough. Maybe nothing I have written works for them. It is mostly based in my own experience and that of persons close to me.

In any case, I hope it promotes some kind of understanding.

[1] The details and circumstances of adult conjoined twins also vary greatly. Even if you knew another pair of conjoined twins your lives would experiences would probably be significantly different.

[2] I have spent a lot of time looking for a specific, and it seems quite unique, documentary I saw a few years ago about alien abduction, or rather, belief in alien abduction. It was about two different people who came to believe they were alien abductees, took no position on whether their claims were real and was nearly devoid of hype. One subject was a single woman who believed she was the mother of alien-human hybrid children whom were kept from her and for whom she grieved. She also remembered an alien encounter from her childhood involving a young boy she believes she meets again as an adult. The other subject was a man who’s belief in his abduction caused incredible strain on his marriage. When I try to search for this film any trace of it is buried in results for sensational documentaries either providing evidence of the alien abduction phenomenon or debunking it.

[3] Add this to the list of things I believe but can not prove. I am quite sure most people who claim to be psychic are lying but I strongly suspect there are others who really believe they are blessed/cursed with psi. One down side of this for them is that most people probably treat them with the same contempt as the con artists.

[4] I have come to embrace that idea that we are not our thoughts. However, I think it is widely held that we are our little more than our thoughts, feelings and decisions. Personally, I think that is dangerous and bad for us collectively and individually. However, I have an existence well beyond that thought. :-)

[5] There is also such as thing as being so depressed that one struggles to respond to conversational questions at all. The only up-side to this condition is that you are probably also too immobilized to hurt yourself.

[6] I do not throw the word “literally” around. I mean what I am saying here.

[7] These fall into a few categories. 1. People who think all mental health issues are over-diagnosed for the benefit of the big drug companies therefore you can’t be part of the correctly diagnosed minority. 2. People who think depression is a product of the American culture of complaint; If you were not complaining about your depression you would be make up some other injustice. 3. The depressed are all just being precious and sensitive; Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

[8] Oversharing is subjective, or at least highly contextual. The point is that people who really care about each other will be tolerant of someone heavily unloading on them, especially in a crisis of some sort.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

New Track: For The Mystic Pioneers (Evelyn Underhill 1875-1941)

Features samples of a LibreVox recording of "Mysticism" by Evelyn Underhill, originally published in 1911. Mysticism, generically, is thought of as peaceful and solitary, but in reality mystic practice can involve the full range of emotions and can be intimately involved in human relationships. I preserved Underhill's words and sentiments, and surrounded them with sounds that provoke, in me anyway, excitement and questions, rather than placid thoughts and feelings. Although successful and more or less happy, Underfull's life was peppered with tension, doubt and disapproval from those closest to her when in came to her spiritual interests. I like to think she would approve of this work.
185bpm. Entirely done with editing in Ardour on Linux; no drum machines or synths were used. Similar results could be achieved by mapping and triggering sounds with a sampler, but the edit/copy/paste/edit process allows me to easily modify individual instances of a sound, even if it is used repeatedly. Non-vocal samples are from collections by Peace Love Productions and DJ Chaos.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Supporting References For Friday's Dinner Conversation

A few musical and related topics discussed over dinner with a delightful group of people this past Friday.

Robert Johnson

Melt Banana

A Tribe Called Red
Wikipedia Article
Official Website -- Be sure to check the videos page!

Steely Dan
Not jazz fusion, in my opinion, but you could make that case.  In some ways, it is prog-rock and pop songwriting taken to a weird, highly produced extreme that happens to include some jazz elements.  

Jazz Fusion

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll by Elijah Wald
Move from swing and dancing to solo performance in jazz, among other things I wrote about the book in my blog,  
The book at BN

Miles Davis

One of many types of jazz played by Miles Davis.

See also, Robert Johnson, among many others.

Kanye West

"Weird Al" Yankovic
The most successful musical parodist in the English language, probably of all time, he is also an extremely talented musician, songwriter and bandleader in his own right.  He is also smarter, funnier, and more principled than you might expect.

Tanya Tagaq

Country Rock  Forged in the 1960's, if you are my age you probably associate it with records from the 1970's and 1980's by The Eagles and Alabama.  In the 21st Century a lot of the rock elements that made those records notable are simply accepted as "country."

Country Rap   So far as I'm concerned, the country music world needs to do a lot more than make a few novelty records with hip-hop elements if they want to prove they aren't part of the problem when in comes to racism. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

ZEITGEIST MUSIC FESTIVAL at Des Moines Social Club Sunday, August 7 2016

The sixth annual Zeitgeist Music Festival, "Iowa's Epic Noise & Experimental Music Fest/Jam," is Sunday, August 7 2016 in the Kum & Go Theater of the Des Moines Social Club, starting at 1:00 PM.  According to the Facebook event page  ( I (as Beautiful Radiant Things) go on at 2:50.