Monday, December 28, 2009

Greetings and Depression

I've been struggling with depression a bit recently. Not down there with the worst I've been through, and even my lowest moments don't really compare with what some people suffer, but after two years pretty much free of the thing its not a lot of fun.

In the process I've been reminded of some of the things people do, clearly with out meaning to that make these bouts worse. I'm not sure how unusual I am in this. I've never read anyone else talk about these sorts of interactions as particularly troublesome, but I figure that if they are common they're worth mentioning because it really shouldn't be hard for readers to avoid doing them.

Greetings are a particular problem for me. Being bothered by greetings and goodbye's is supposed to be one of the marks of Asperger's, and its something that has always made me self diagnose on that point. In particular I'm troubled by the vague questions that seem impossible to answer. A particular bugbear is "What's happening?" A perfectly reasonable query from someone arriving late at an event, but really frustrating when you run into someone and they fire it at you with no obvious context. I have absolutely no idea how one is supposed to answer. Should you talk about the current state of geopolitics, discuss the last five minutes of your life, of give them an update of what has happened to you since you last saw them.

This is actually quite stressful for me at any time, because if I'm supposed to do one of these I don't really want to get it wrong. Sometimes I can make a joke out of it, but that effort is usually beyond me when I'm depressed. It all feels like there is some secret handshake and if I don't know the correct response I'm being failed as a human being.

Even the standard "How are you?", fine normally, can be a problem when I'm depressed. If the person asking is someone I'm not close to I take it as a totally boilerplate greeting and answer "fine, and you?" It's not true of course, but I figure they don't really want to know, its just a piece of politeness. If the person is someone I'm really close to I might confess how I'm really feeling. Where it really hurts is if its someone I'm close enough to that I don't want to lie to them - as they might really care - but not close enough I feel I can burden them with my worries. I once had someone look on me with amazement when I literally writhed in pain after he asked this question. I just wasn't sure which way to go.

Nevertheless, as a rule I think the "How are you?" is polite without being demanding. What I really hate is some of the more intrusive inquiries. On one occasion a friend of friends asked me "So what brilliant things have you been doing lately?" No maybe he says this to everyone - its his own boilerplate. Or maybe based on our one and a half previous conversations he really does think I do brilliant things all the time. But the problem was that at the time I was deeply anxious about how little I had achieved in the last two months. If someone had offered me a noose and a handy hanging point right then, I reckon it might have been all over red rover. I've avoided the guy ever since, and I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm terribly rude.

The worst aspect of this is when I don't answer the question properly, and the inquisitor gives me a sort of stare, that is apparently meant to mean: You haven't answered my question, instead treating it as a routine greeting. I demand you give me a full explanation of your state of being forthwith, because I have the right to do this. Twenty-five years of non-violence behind me and I swear one day I am going to slap someone who does this.

The worst aspect of this is social situations where there are a mix of people, some of whom are genuine friends and some who are likely to do this sort of thing. Yesterday I was feeling pretty down and remembered a social event of exactly this nature. I knew that some of the people there would cheer me up, but attending meant desperately navigating around, trying to avoid those likely to greet me this way. I nearly didn't go, and the soothing presence of friends was almost entirely counter-balanced by the other factors.

I suppose a different personality would say "I find it really intrusive when you ask questions like that," but most of the time that's not me.

So for anyone who knows me in real life, consider this a head's up. And if you don't, you might want to think about how what you say affects those given to glumness and a certain literalness of interpretation.

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