On People Who Think They’re so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3” on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”

11 thoughts on “On People Who Think They’re so Damn Funny

  1. The same error that you are criticizing others for committing on you – the assumption that you are qualitatively in the same mental state as them – you yourself are committing on other people with a mental illness. That is to say, while the depression you are experiencing may be as you describe it – that does not enable generalizing to “someone.” It only allows you to talk about you.

    While I agree that ‘humor’ may not help you, what gives you the evidence (other than anecdotal) to be prescriptive with your assumptions? What’s going to help people with depression is a combination of behavioral activation, cognitive reappraisal, and pharmacotherapy. Only when one begins to pick apart the underlying errors in reason can one begin to undermine the foundation of a depressive episode. That being said, just like with any other practical illness, treating the symptomatology of depression and alleviating acute episodes of negative affect is just as important. How one can go about doing that with any particular depressed person will vary.

    Mental illness often creates a logical tautology from which it is difficult to escape. The thoughts and consequent situations that one creates around oneself cause the thoughts that precipitated the negative situation in the first place. Things don’t just seem bad… they seem NECESSARILY bad because of the way the situation was self-designed. If it sounds like I am blaming the victim here, to a certain degree I am. And the extent to which that realization can be used as a step in the healing process, as a step in fixing some of the dysfunctional thoughts that a person may be having, then god speed.

    –Anonymous Coward

    • Hello, person who’s too cowardly to leave his/her real name!

      I can assure you that I know QUITE a bit about the treatment of depression. However, in this post, I am only referring to the interactions between a depressive and his/her friends. I’m assuming my friends cannot perform cognitive-behavioral therapy on me or prescribe psychopharmaceuticals, since I’m not friends with any therapists or psychiatrists.

      Because of this limitation, I’m not even talking about the treatment of depression. I’m talking about what a person’s friends can do to help them, or at least, as the case may be, avoiding making them feel worse. Your impressive-sounding jargon is no good here, is it?

  2. Pingback: Mental Illness Is Not a Punchline « Brute Reason

  3. actually think our society is largely afraid of all strong emotion- both positive and negative. 😦 Extremes frighten people and they resort to humor or denial. It takes a lot of courage to meet people where they are emotionally and not feel responsible for changing them. IME many of us get better at this as we age- or perhaps we get smarter about the friends we choose- or perhaps both. Hang in there. We all deserve friends who can be comfortable with all aspects of our personality- they don’t have to embrace every part of us- just tolerate and accept it.

  4. I suffer from depression for long, mostly since the economic crisis came, as well as corruption from others destroyed my career and all my life projects and despite huge efforts as investment in education and all that i never could again make my life back, returning to retired parents home at the age of 32. We are having severe financial problems and low incomes and all the projects i had for life were destroyed an this in long term made it worse. They have illnesses. Besides, i was always someone who did not wanted a city common life, i wanted a life fullfilled with meaning, adventure, art, beautiful things. But then we live in the verge of poverty, all that cannot be achieved, and what defined myself was over…depresssion came slowly, the burnout for studying and working, the incredible pain of long term unemployement without any benefit…the empty life, routine on poverty, loneliness, no projects, no life of my own…yes, it gets really dark and empty right here. It has been for more than 3, 4 years. It is not going to end so soon.
    This just to say that i found both in my life. People who did not understand (the majority) and those very few who do (a minority). People who have always had a career and can do the things they love usually dont understand me, they say that exactely “cheer up, have fun” “dont think about that”, and its amazing how easy one can just say that without even imagining how dark and deep gets in here. They take it so lighlty as it was just their new watch that broke or if they just got bored because the beach or ski station were crowded. Just like this norwegian guy on the internet, “oh youshould go out more, go to spend a weekend in the forest, camping in the woods, it makes wonders to you” really dear young man? Well in the country i live there is NO forest nearby, and when it is you have to pay a fee and can be sued if you camp there. But that i understand…
    He is from Norway, so…i kind of forgive the guy, he does have everything that crisis made me lose, so he dont understand…
    Sometimes i pretend i am happy so i dont have to listen stupid things.
    Luckily i found good friends who have been with me all these years. That kind of friends who say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” as you said, when things are really down. Those who can be silent with me, walking and taking a moment of fresh air outside, those who are always there with confort and accept me as i am, not having to pretend or change.

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