One of my pet peeves is that experts contradict each other SO often, and it’s frustrating as hell. When my baby was born, I had a very limited support structure in terms of family and friends to lend advice and support. I was not on good terms with family, and most of my friends had not started having kids yet. So I was pretty much on my own – and thus, turned to the experts in the form of reading books. I read a LOT of books.
My then-hubby came home one day to find me weeping on the sofa, because I had just read a book telling me that the emergency c-section I had just had to have, to save my and my baby’s life, had done irreparable damage to the baby. It was that particular expert’s opinion that any baby born via c-section is damaged – I can’t remember the specifics, all I really remember is that I was devastated.
I mean, what was I supposed to do – shove it back in and try again???
Granted, I was not in my right mind. Turns out Postpartum depression was a real bitch for me, and we hadn’t yet realized it. The experts I read at the time all had impressive credentials and had been touting their own personal brand of “fact” about parenting and babies for years. They were all well known and published authors.
Yet often, their facts would be in direct contradiction with the facts I had just read in a different book. I finally had to throw all of the books away and turn my attention toward my child – and actually paying attention to them as an individual, and a human being. Then I could parent accordingly.
Still Having Trouble With “Authority”
Now, 20+ years later, I still struggle with “the experts”. Experts have wildly different ideas of what eating healthy looks like, for instance – often in contradiction with each other. Which is it – Paleo or vegan? Seems to me that if experts had enough data to know THE TRUTH…then there wouldn’t be such compelling arguments for completely opposing ideas. (Yes, I know you CAN be Paleo AND vegan…but come on…mostly Paleo is trying to tell us that eating meat and fat is THE answer, and Vegans believe that eating meat is not only not good for US, but not good for the planet.)
Recently, however, nothing has pissed me off as much as a post I read yesterday.
Tim Ferris, famous for “The 4-hour Work Week”, published a post that I just saw yesterday. I don’t know when he wrote it, although it refers to Heath Ledger’s death, so I feel like it might have been a bit ago. Yet, it was posted on his Facebook page yesterday or the day before.
Anyway – in it, he gave some advice on dealing with depression. Initially, it really made me mad. It was short, without any history or explanation. He has apparently lost a couple of friends to suicide, and from this short post, it seemed this was the only place he got his expertise on depression.
Brevity In Dealing with Complexity Can Be A Double-edged Sword
After doing some digging, I found out that he wrote in his book, “Tools of Titans”, about his own personal experience with a depressive episode in college, during which he contemplated suicide. Unfortunately, his short post left that information out, and it is worded in such a way that it can be interpreted to mean that depression isn’t “real”, and that you just have to think differently and use different labels for your emotions, and you’ll be FINE.
So here’s the thing. After reading his history, and then re-reading his short post through the filter of knowing he has experienced at least ONE depressive episode in his time on this planet, I can make his words less damaging. As a reader, however, I shouldn’t have to work that hard.
If a person in the midst of a really deep and dark depressive episode, who also happens to be a fan of Tim Ferris, reads that post, it could do a lot of damage.
My first reaction was that if I didn’t know better, his words would have sent me spiraling into self-recrimination. I would have used them to further prove to myself that I am weak. I would have used his article to influence my thoughts in the worst possible direction. After all, if this thing I “label” as depression is JUST loneliness, and JUST a phase, then if I can’t beat it I must be a real friggin’ loser, right?
Tim Ferris Is Spiderman
“With great power comes great responsibility”. I don’t know who said this first, but most people know this quote from “Spiderman”, and it applies here. Tim Ferris has a huge audience and a tremendous amount of influence. He offers his own advice and advice culled from experts about a myriad of topics, and he puts his own way of living out there as a blueprint for others.
On topics having to do with mental illness, particularly depression, I feel like this position of influence comes with the responsibility to THINK about the words you put out into the world. I can believe that he thought he was being helpful. After all, he gives us three ideas about how to combat depression:
- Depression is just one phase of a natural biorhythm and thus both transient and needed…
- How you label determines how you feel.
- Gratitude training can be used pre- or mid-depressive symptoms to moderate the extremes and speed the transition.
You can find the whole article here (but reader BEWARE).
I don’t necessarily disagree with what he is saying, but I strongly object to how he says it and the lack of context in which he presents these little nuggets. I spent a few minutes fuming about it, before doing a bit of research, realizing that he isn’t JUST talking out his ass, but that essentially what he’s done is presented information that could have been useful if given within the context of a larger discussion.
Depression is complex and individual. One person’s experience, and what works to combat it, might be very different from another’s. Presenting any kind of “solution” in a way that implies a quick fix or diminutive thinking is, in my opinion, dangerous.
Of course, as the audience, we are responsible for how we digest information. As writers, we can only predict the effect of our words to a point – after that, the reader takes over and the rest of the story happens in their heads. However, we can choose how we present information, and ensure that it carries with it an amount of respect and compassion for the reader. We can make sure that we are CLEAR about whether we are presenting from a place of personal experience, or expertise. We can be responsible about the so-called facts, so that the reader is encouraged to think for themselves and do further investigation.
We can present information in a way that is more likely to be helpful, and less likely to be damaging. Especially if our intention is to help – which I believe Mr. Ferris was trying to do. In fact, I think he makes his living off of trying to help. He does it very well, too – the making a living part. Judging from his reach, I have to surmise that he also helps a lot of people, or they wouldn’t keep coming back for more, right?
His presentation style seems to be very direct, and “tell it like it is”, and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”…which is a useful style for a lot of people. However, if your intended audience is someone who is in the midst of a depressive episode, then they may not be in a place where “depression is just a phase, get over it” is a useful message!
Meeting People Where They Are
People, in their darkest times, may need to be reached on their own level. They may need a hand up, some gentle help to see things from a different perspective. They may need some friggin’ compassion.
I doubt Tim Ferris will see this post, and I doubt it will mean anything to him. He is not my audience, however. I’m writing this to try and make sure that you, whoever is reading this, shield yourself against “the experts” and “the influencers”. CHOOSE what you let in – and do your research if something hits you in a negative way.
More than anything else, know yourself. If you are feeling depressed, and someone tells you it’s just a phase, it’s ok to know that while this might be true, it isn’t necessarily helpful. Keep going and find something that IS helpful.
Because the cycle will continue, and you CAN feel better eventually. You can remember that even if you can’t reach it right now, there have been times in the past when you felt differently than you feel right now, and you can know that this means there will be times in the future when you can feel differently again.
Bicycyles, Tricycles, Moon Cycles – All Go Round and Round
So…sure…it’s a “phase”. Part of a cycle. These things are true – but they don’t diminish how you feel during those times.
And…sure…changing how you are thinking might help you find ways to make it through until things feel lighter again. That doesn’t mean that it’s simple…you might even need some help, and reaching out for that help might be the bravest and hardest thing you’ve ever done. It’s worth it, though. Help really CAN save your life, and give you a chance to find out that you can feel better!
And finally…sure…maybe what you are calling depression can be called by different names. Maybe today you are feeling lonely, and that is lending itself to your depression. If you have someone with whom you can spend some time, by all means do it. Sometimes, though, we don’t have those people, and we need to know that in this moment, how we are feeling is valid, AND we can be brave and stick it out.
Loneliness is a tricky bugger, especially when viewed through the lens of mental illness. For some of us, it’s not so simple as “well, go out and make some friends!”. For some of us, social anxiety, or chronic illness, or other challenges, make being social extremely difficult, if not impossible. In those cases, our fight against loneliness is a much more complex issue. In those cases, we might need help.
Help can come in many different forms, however, and loneliness can be fought with a lot of different tools these days. Until you CAN just “go out and make a friend”, help might come in the form of connecting via the internet, or contacting a local service organization. It might even come in the form of a goldfish.
Something On Which We ARE ABLE To Take Action
The point is that telling us that loneliness is “actionable”, Mr. Ferris, is over simplifying something complex to such a degree that it might do more harm than good. After all, if someone is unable to take action in the moment, regardless of a larger perspective, in that moment, that thing is NOT actionable for that person.
So, please…just THINK. Think about your audience.
And audience – THINK about the person who is presenting you the information, and definitely process that information for yourself rather than accepting it as it is presented, no matter how influential or how much of a seeming “expert” that person might be.
I write all of this from my own personal perspective as a reader, as the audience…and definitely NOT as an expert. All I can do is report my own experiences and thoughts, sometimes backed up by some information from other so-called experts. Nothing I write should ever be misconstrued as a fact, nor should it be taken in without a healthy dose of self-awareness. If it is helpful, that is its purpose, and I really do hope it helps. If it is not helpful, let it GO. Move on and find something that IS helpful to you.
If you are experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, please get help. It IS out there, and it really can save your life and make your life BETTER. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has both a phone number and the ability to chat online – so you don’t even have to TALK to someone to get help! Save yourself – I promise you’re worth it.