I love it when you tell me your troubles.
I nearly ducked out of our coffee date, and am so glad I didn’t, even though you were preoccupied when we greeted each other, and immediately delivered me a litany of toxic workplaces, people who waste your time but don’t buy, people who buy but don’t pay, how ambition is stunted when it’s so hard to get anything started … on and on and wonderfully on.
For half an hour you were so wrapped up in what was wrong with life that you forgot to treat me gently. Instead of wondering if I was struggling, you treated me like a friend and an adult and it was a treat. I feel like we’re still connected.
People in the know approach me with fearful, careful delicacy, trying to balance the obligatory ‘how are you doing?’ with the risk that I might answer. Since this damn depression hit, I’ve felt like an alien. Everyone else is disconnecting from me, a little bit at a time, reducing my life to their smiling good news before they stop saying anything at all.
Once I made the mistake of believing ‘Call me anytime’ meant what I thought it meant.
Assaulted with RUOK day again, another round of letting people believe a once-a-year enquiry will change my life, another round of keeping my head down in case someone asks me … I called because I wasn’t okay, and did it once too often.
‘Call me anytime,’ she told me and, for a while, it helped. It’s just that I took her literally, believing she’d remain a friend even though I remained a downer, that long familiarity would carry the burden long enough for us still to be friends when the day came that I could answer, ‘I’m fine, how about you?’
The circumstances of life—being someone’s carer, watching my greatest love gradually relinquish her faculties, keeping my fears to myself to escape the tears—are a downer. I always promised that next time we talked, I’d be cheerful. I’d have good news, and we’d swap playful puns and old-friend flirts and plan a visit with the families. But little by little she withdrew. Instead of weekly, we would talk fortnightly or monthly. Finally, not at all; she occasionally and briefly answers emails, promising a proper reply that never arrives.
People I thought were friends are too scared to talk to me at all, in case I forget to fake it and actually tell them how I really feel. It used to hurt so much, realising that I didn’t have as many friends as I thought I had, but now? It’s routine. Someone I trust sends an apologetic email that they haven’t been in touch, I don’t hear from them again until Facebook says it’s their birthday, and I send them a hug they don’t answer.
Well: I’m not asking you to listen, I’m asking you to talk. To pretend I’m still whole. To assume I can tell the difference between your troubles and mine. It’s really nice, because it says you haven’t written me off.
Not like my family. My siblings act as if they’ve written me off. They’re not like the friends who don’t call or email or talk on Facebook, I guess family is stuck with me. And God knows, they help: cheerfully practical, smilingly relentlessly safe-distance protective of me. Honest intimacy is another matter, because I’m clearly unable to cope with anything but happy stories.
When I was three, my grandfather died at a family picnic (you can still find the story online in the Age, if you know the name and the year: ‘With his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren he had driven to …’) and because I was a toddler, I heard nothing but ‘don’t worry’ amid the chaos and the shouts, the men of the family running, the shocked faces of the children, the tears of the women, the shouts and the ambulance and the silent drive home. I feel like that toddler again, protected from the bad news by the grown-ups. Old uncle Des’ heart trouble? Great news, he’s on the waiting list for a bypass! Aunt Dulcie? Look, I don’t want to upset you but it has been a long illness, no don’t visit her, I’ll tell her you were asking.
Damn me, I know that my nephew isn’t good news. He’s a bagful of trouble, and he drives his mother Helen nuts. I don’t believe he’s ‘just fine, thanks’. Helen no longer asks me for advice, even though last year I suggested she send him to rowing club, where everyone likes his big shoulders and he got a girlfriend. Now? Helen is lovely, sympathetic, helpful and closed. She doesn’t tell me anything.
The family has put me in a plastic and pastel protective shell, a surreal real-world remake of The Truman Show where I won’t be hurt. (Did I ever mention that I reckon The Truman Show had its premise lifted from Philip Dick’s Time out of Joint? I’d lend it to you, but while I was unpacking, I found that someone had helpfully helped us move by abstracting my PKD collection to place or places unknown. Because the books might upset me, I guess.)
When someone won’t share their troubles, won’t tell me the truth, they’re shutting me out of their lives, disconnecting from me, disengaging from me.
Even with Sarah, best friend since we were 14 years old?—I can see the signs. When we were 27, Sarah asked me to drive her to a hospice where her grandmother was dying: ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to drive after, you know, when she’s gone, and Trevor can’t get away from work. Could you?’ I could.
Plugged-in and pumped-out and wasted and wan, the old lady barely moved her head when we arrived, smiled for Sarah’s cheek-kiss, and managed to wheeze through the oxygen mask. ‘Hello, young fella. Didn’t I see you play the trumpet on Anzac Day, years ago? I’m sure I did.’ Then she went back to sleep, briefly waking for each arrival until the whole family was there to say good-bye, and then she let go.
Another half a lifetime later, Sarah now saves me from all but her all-too-briefly told happy news, and avoids discussing the worst of mine. ‘How are you?’ I asked her. Sarah told me she’s very proud of Jenny, who’s starting her masters at Monash next month. I asked again, ‘How are you?’ She said Claire was taking a gap next year, then of all things she’s going to study astronomy at Sydney, how’s that ever going to give her a career?
Again: ‘and yourself?’ And she told me that Trevor’s new job was ten minutes from home, thank heavens, he wouldn’t have a 90-minute commute to work and could sleep until six-thirty for a change.
Some topics are simply verboten. She can’t cope with hearing me blame myself for depression ruining my sex life, that after years of marriage, I suddenly can’t summon any kind of arousal. ‘It’s like being a carer makes it hard to be a lover,’ I said, and ‘I’m sure it will be all right,’ she answered.
My partner and the kids know what’s wrong, of course. They’ve seen it all, of course they know it all, but … we’re not connected, not the way a family should be, because they’re all working so damn hard trying not to upset me.
My blood ran cold when you interrupted yourself, looked at your empty coffee cup, and apologised: ‘I shouldn’t be putting all this on you.’ But you were pent up and bottled up and outraged and uncorked, so you let me off the hook of my presumed fragility and resumed.
‘You know what they did? Only put all their external contractors on 90-day terms! As if a top-100 company needs to use people like me as a bank! How am I supposed to pay the bills in the meantime? I can’t tell the landlord I’ve decided to pay the rent three months in arrears. If I don’t get something before June I’m in deep trouble. You don’t know anybody I could do some work for at short notice, do you? It’s getting desperate, and Mark’s telling me to get a salaried job again and I don’t want to but …’
I closed my eyes, not because I was bored, but because I wanted so much to capture and hold how it felt to be trusted like an adult again.
You, my selfish, inconsiderate, treasured friend, you still tell me your troubles. In spite of my depression, ignoring my mental wellbeing entirely, flying in the face of received wisdom, you act as if ‘I’ am still in here somewhere, and you talk to me instead of to my depression.
God, that’s wonderful. It feels like things are normal for a while. Don’t ever stop.