I had a very interesting (and quite lovely) conversation with an faculty member today. He’s older, and he’s not originally from the US (or the West, for that matter), which has bearing upon how the conversation progressed.
I interrupted him on the phone to ask if I could update his computer, and as he finished up, his voice changed and it became quite clear he was talking to a child. (He wasn’t speaking English, and I was able to start on what needed to be done, so I didn’t feel awkward about being there as he ended a private conversation.) (1)
I asked him if he was talking to a grandkid, and his face lit up and said yes, and I asked him how many grandkids he had, their ages, how far away they lived, etc. This brought the conversation quite naturally around to me, and I told him I didn’t have any kids.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I’d make a terrible mother,” I said, giving him my standard reply.
This obviously didn’t make any sense to him, and so as we continued, I decided he really was curious (no need to tell me he was being a jerk, it was none of his business, etc. He really wasn’t–he was honestly curious, and believed that I would make a marvelous mother). (2)
So I told him that I suffer from depression, and there was a distinct possibility that I would have serious problems with postpartum depression if I got pregnant.
He was taken aback. “But you’re always so happy! So cheerful!” (He repeated this several times, he was so shocked.)
“When I feel bad, it makes me feel a little better if I can make people happy,” I told him. (It was a longer and more complicated than that, but you get the gist of it. (We also clarified depression and dementia and Alzheimer’s, just so he was certain about his “D” illnesses.))
After some consideration, he said that perhaps he understood. That he’d often met men who were friendly and outgoing and great guys, but as (I think) an elder of his church, sometimes the wives of these men would ask him for help/advice, because at home these men were not so wonderful.
“The outside doesn’t match the inside.”
“Yes,” I said, “except that the horribleness is turned inward to me.”
We talked a little bit longer about how long I’d dealt with this, and medicines and such, and as I finished what I was working on and got up to leave, he gave me a huge hug (and no, not a creepy hug–I think he was afraid he had upset me, asking about depression (he hadn’t)).
And here’s the thing: There are many things about that conversation that probably shouldn’t have happened (seeing as how it was at work) but it was a good conversation, and more importantly, a useful one, because I got to share with someone that depression happens to everyone–even the people who seem cheerful and happy on the outside.
Could anyone do this? Most likely not.
I’ve discovered over the years that something about me makes people willing to ask questions to which they really want to know the answers (3). Probably because I try to make people comfortable and put them at ease. (4)
But even if this exact scenario isn’t something everyone can do, I believe it helps to remember that anyone can share their weaknesses. That in this age of constant horribleness in the news, it helps to remind people that depression and mental illness aren’t the providence of monsters, but something that anyone can suffer from.
And a reminder to us, that we aren’t monsters, and that what we feel on the inside often has little bearing to what people see on the outside.
(1) I actually love listening to conversations in other languages, because usually there is some random English word dropped into a sentence of what is otherwise incomprehensible to me. My favorite was “blah blah blah blah school bus blah blah.”
(2) It would probably also confuse anyone who follows my Flickr feed, in which a variety of kids make regular appearances.
(3) One of my favorites from years ago: “In traffic, this guy waved at me with one finger. What did it mean?”
(4) Let me tell you, this, combined with a sense of humor, is an invaluable asset in face-to-face tech support, and has led to many spontaneous hugs, as I fix what had seemed like an insurmountable problem.