Wednesday 17 July 2019

"If You've Never Been Depressed or Manic, How Can You Know What It's Like?"

There’s a common perception that we cannot truly understand someone’s situation unless we’ve ‘walked a mile in their shoes.’ An equivalent experience may help us relate to one another but it carries its own responsibilities and cautions. The main danger lies in assuming that our experience is relevant to the person we’re trying to help.

If I’d ever been clinically depressed myself, for example, I might imagine Fran experiences depression the way I did or that her needs are the same as mine were. Consciously or unconsciously, there’d be a tendency for me to focus on those parts of her story which fit my personal model of what it’s like to be depressed. I might push her towards approaches I’d found useful and steer her away from things that hadn’t been helpful to me personally.

However, there can be specific advantages. Never having shared equivalent experiences allows me to ask Fran the ‘dumb questions’ others might not ask (believing they know the answers) such as how exactly does it feel to be so low that she can talk of ending her life, or so fatigued that making a tuna sandwich is a herculean undertaking. In turn, Fran can share as much of herself as she feels comfortable doing, recognising I am to some extent a ‘clean slate,’ untainted by preconceptions of what her life must be like.

This isn’t an argument for ignorance. An informed awareness of what it means to live with illness helps me support Fran more effectively. With that in mind, I try and learn as much as possible, by talking with Fran and with others, by reading widely and by taking all the training courses I can find. I work on the basis that Fran is doing her best to share with me the reality of her situation, and share my own understanding with her. In this way we honour each other and grow together.


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