There’s a saying I heard in school a long time ago, that communication isn’t what you say, it’s what your listener understands. Normally, I guess that’s pretty true. But all the best advice from communications experts flies out the window when it comes to communication through the filter of depression.
My husband and I recently hosted a birthday party for one of our children. We encouraged the parents to drop their children off for two and a half hours during the party, which included a child-friendly kosher dairy dinner. Baruch Hashem, I was in a good enough place to remain calm and engaging while entertaining and feeding thirteen children ages three to six.
One mom remained with her child for a while because he was feeling a little unsure about the whole situation. As one would expect, there were some rowdy kids and some calm, polite kids. The mom who remained came over at one point when I started serving dinner and commented that she was impressed with how I dealt with so many children. I was admittedly pleased that she thought so. Her comment eased any worries I had about my losing control of the party.
I finished making sure all the children had enough to eat and drink, which meant multiple trips into the kitchen where my husband was in charge of cooking. A few of the kids had finished eating early and had gone to my birthday child’s room to play until the others were done. It was a little noisy, but not excessively so (I didn’t think) and everyone was playing nicely together.
At that point, the one mom’s child “gave her permission” to leave until pickup time. She came over and said to me that where she’s from, parents don’t leave the children, and the children are consequently much better behaved. I immediately thought she meant me. I thought she meant that she disapproved of my leaving the children for a minute or two in order to get more plates and drinks. I thought she disapproved of the children who’d left and were playing noisily in the bedroom.
I didn’t know how to take that, and I made some vague sympathetic agreeing noises and accompanying expression. But inside I was waging a war with myself. I knew I was doing the best I could, that if I didn’t leave the room to get food and drink, the children would have gone hungry, which wasn’t an option. But maybe I had failed to provide adequate supervision. Maybe, even with the best of intentions, I had done something very wrong.
It wasn’t until the next day that I finally figured out she probably meant the other parents, who had dropped their children off and quickly disappeared. I let myself off the hook. The parents appreciated an evening to themselves, the children had fun, no one was in tears at any point, and my birthday child was happy with the evening.
This particular situation ended well, but I’m using it as an example. The pervasive fear that we’re just not measuring up, that we’ll never be good enough, that not only what we do but the very nature of who we are is wrong, these are all common feelings among those with depression. They’re fears I fight frequently. And that’s on a good day.
On a bad day, it’s not only a failure to correctly understand what someone is telling me, but what I hear is twisted and warped through the lens of my depression so that I understand it in the worst possible way.
Please understand, I don’t do this consciously or on purpose. If there was a way to not feel this way, believe me, I would. I talk about this to my counselor and usually to my husband, and I try as hard as I can to use “self talk” and back out of the emotions into a rational place. I try to avoid social situations when I know I’m in a vulnerable space, to minimize this happening in public. I don’t always have a choice.
One of the worst times in recent memory was a Sunday brunch at shul, followed by a lecture I really wanted to hear on women and Talmud. Those of you with small children know that leaving the house by a certain time is not always easy. We were one of the later families to arrive; most had already found spaces at the tables and were serving themselves from the buffet-style dairy brunch. There were four of us – two adults and two children. Only a few of the tables were completely full. Most had some empty chairs.
We wandered among the partially full tables, hoping to sit with someone. The only other choice was to go to an empty table and sit by ourselves. At one table, there were four empty chairs with no obvious signs that they were taken. But as we approached the empty chairs, one of the women sitting there looked at me, not entirely friendly, and said, these seats are saved. At another table there were three empty chairs and room, if they moved just a few inches, to add a fourth, especially for a small child. I asked if we could join them and they said no, they were holding two of the chairs for someone who hadn’t arrived yet but might, before the morning was over.
At each table we went to, they turned us away. Not enough room, chairs reserved for someone not yet present, and in one horribly painful instance, those present at one table were looking around for a fourth chair to add for us when they spotted another family – of four – and waved that family over, encouraging them to sit at that table. One of the women said to me, sorry you’ll have to find another place.
In my vulnerable, already depressed state (though I was fighting with everything I had not to show it), the message was clear: we don’t want you.
We don’t want you translated in my chemically imbalanced brain into you’re not worth it, which in turn became my life isn’t worth living.
I ran from the room and made a beeline for the restroom. Why I always choose the restroom to do my crying, I don’t know. But I sobbed in the stall, carefully listening in case anyone came in, because if they did, I’d have to be totally silent so they’d never suspect.
I didn’t want anyone to know how I felt. I didn’t want their pity. I didn’t want to be invited to sit with someone because they felt sorry for me or felt guilty. I wanted to be invited because they enjoyed my wit or my perspective or wanted to get to know me. I wanted to be invited because I had something to offer to the table conversation. Instead, what I heard was that I had nothing worth offering.
In the back of my mind, in the small, rational, sane place, I was hurt and I was angry, especially at that last table. I thought it was rude and very un-Jewish. That small part of my mind wanted people to know how I felt, because maybe, just maybe, they’d figure out that their actions and words were hurtful, and no one else would have to be turned away the way I was. But I couldn’t get past the overwhelming feelings of rejection, and the certainty that I was rejected because of who I am, or conversely, who I am not.
My brain is quick with the reasons why I’m unworthy, especially in shul situations.
- I’m not a man
- I’m not rich
- I’m not nationally famous
- I don’t have a professional degree
- I converted (most don’t know about my convoluted family history and my maternal grandmother being born and raised Jewish)
- I’m me
Sobbing in the restroom, the feelings were overwhelming. No matter what wisdom that small rational part of my brain had, it couldn’t break through the feelings. I couldn’t talk myself out of it. The pain was so deep and so all-encompassing that I honestly thought it would kill me. I needed to let it out, to give some physical or visual representation to what I felt inside, yet I couldn’t show my tears.
So I did the only thing I knew worked: I bit off part of my fingernail to create a ragged edge and I cut myself. I dreamed of deep cuts, of all the pain flowing out of me in a cascade of blood. I understood, not for the first time, how people can be in so much emotional pain that they lose their connection with G-d and the world and commit suicide. I wasn’t quite to that point, but gouging myself with a jagged fingernail couldn’t be any more acceptable even if it made me feel better.
Fortunately in my mind, perhaps unfortunately under the circumstances, I wore long sleeves so no one saw the cuts. I barely drew blood (it’s hard with a fingernail), but it was enough to allow me to go back to the room and sit alone with my family at a table where no one else joined us the entire morning. A couple of people came by and greeted us with that “Hi how are you?” where you know they don’t really want an answer.
No one saw. No one knew. No one suspected, or if they did, they never said anything that got back to me.
Even the rabbi didn’t seem to notice, despite the fact that he made eye contact and I knew my eyes were still red and puffy even after pressing cold paper towels to them in the restroom.
I got what I wanted. I was successful hiding it all, the hurt, the anger, the cuts, the feelings of worthlessness. I was convinced that morning that I could disappear from the face of the earth and no one aside from my husband and children would notice. Or if they noticed, they wouldn’t care.
It took me two weeks to come out of that depression. I won’t say that it was caused by the rejections at brunch because that’s simply not true. But those rejections didn’t help matters, and may have sped up or made worse an already bad situation.
In the months after, I tried wherever appropriate to stress the importance of welcoming others, not only strangers but even those whom we know. I tried to stress the importance of being attentive to each other, of not just hearing but really listening to each other. I tried to explain that making room, or not, at a table during a meal at shul – something not earth-shattering – could make a difference in someone’s life. I tried to explain it all without disclosing my own pain.
I don’t know if any of it was heard, or if it made any difference. I still don’t to this day know how much of that morning’s experience could have been avoided by one compassionate table. I know that similar things have happened to me and others at shul since that day. I know that I’m very sensitive to people sitting alone at a table, especially if they’d rather not be alone. I know that the world is largely made up of fend-for-yourself people who are only looking out for #1 and would ignorantly tell me to quit being so sensitive and buck up and stop whining.
Sometimes my depression makes me more sensitive to others in pain. Sometimes it’s a curse and can turn even the most enjoyable social event into an ugly and painful experience.
I don’t know how to tell people that sometimes our wires get crossed and what they meant to say turns into something completely different in my head. I don’t know how to change it. And I don’t know how to stop the tears right now.