It Sucks to Be in the Shadow
Notes from an anonymous conversation with a chronically depressed man
One night I was out of ideas to write. So I decided to explore websites where people who feel lost or depressed can express their thoughts anonymously.
One of these platforms allowed me to sign up as a volunteer and chat with people who were struggling with their own emotions. What followed was one of the most thoughtful conversations I’ve had this year.
My first anonymous chat experience
It was my first chat on this newly found platform, and I didn’t know what to expect or how to respond. I confess I was nervous. I had just concluded a short training session on the platform, which, for me, was a complete load of positive thinking bollocks, and this was my first attempt as a volunteer.
I felt the responsibility not to make a bad situation worse for the people who sought this service as probably their last resort for establishing some connections with another human being.
Although I’ve never myself descended into the deepest darkness that our minds are capable of creating, I have had my share of exposure to people who have.
My mother is borderline. So she sees the world in black and white, being chronically depressed for most of her life. Many of my closest friends have been in that place, and some have lost their lives committing suicide.
So I decided I would be kind, open, and honest, as usual, perhaps a little bit kinder and less openly honest as I would usually be with a friend who does not suffer from depression.
Everything about the world is bad
I introduced myself and asked him how he was, to which he replied:
— “I’m fine.”
Great, this was going well, so far. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but shortly after that, I was being bombarded with gratuitous yet ferocious attacks from this guy. It felt as if he was getting angry towards my kindness.
— “Everything I say you distort into a rationalization,” he said.
— “That’s the most precise comment I’ve ever heard about myself,” I replied. He was right. I can be a pain in the ass with my over rationalization and he had only known me for a few sentences.
— “Then what should I do instead? Attack you?”— I asked, feeling that he was hoping for a fight that I wasn’t about to grant him.
— “It’s the natural thing to do. The world is tribal. Everything about the world is bad but I’m not trying to change your mind.”
— “Me neither, so we have one thing in common,” I said, trying to find some common ground in the midst of pessimistic chaos.
— “So why are you here?” — he asked.
My writing partner had never been to university. Yet he had some of the most interesting insights about life out of any of my intellectual friends. He dropped out of school to work from an early age. His childhood was troubled. He suffered abuse from his parents while trying to survive in a rough neighborhood. He had no friends and trusted no one. His suspicion inevitably turned to me:
— I was wondering why you’re spending so much energy on a faceless stranger that you will never meet. What do you get out of it?” — he continued, expecting to hear that I was trying to save him from his depression, like most of the volunteers on the platform. “And please, don’t tell me you don’t get anything out of it. We’re all selfishly motivated one way or another.”
— “I was hoping for an honest conversation. I get insights out of it.” I replied, trying to confirm the comment on selfishness, but he wasn’t buying it.
— “I learned a long time ago to never rely on the kindness of strangers. Mostly because I don’t believe it exists. I learned that first, when people try to give me charity that I refused, suddenly, I am ungrateful. It was all about them. People who live normal, stable lives look down at us like a sick animal that needs saving and caring for. But many of us don’t want that. I don’t need saving. So, what do you want out of this?”
— “It’s an exchange. You throw your ideas at me, I throw mine at you, and we come out wiser” — or so I hoped. He was certainly making me think but got more and more defensive each time I tried to point out that something good could arise from our conversation.
— “My life was defined by chaos and unpredictability. I have no need to overcompensate and find footing since I never had any.” — his nihilism certainly got my attention.
It sucks to be in the shadow
There was a fresh taste of sincerity and freedom in his words that kept me engaged. I started to understand the appeal that it has to millions around us who have also never found footing.
— “Then why are you here? Aren’t you also wasting your time?”
— “I’m hoping to find a reason why I should think differently,” he said, lowering his guard and offering me an opening for the first time in this conversation.
— “Why are you looking for that reason?”
— “Because it sucks to be in the shadow.”
Then there we had it: it sucks to be in the shadow. A confession from a guy, who for the past few hours, was trying to sell me the idea that being unkind is natural, the wise thing to do.
It was a relief. We stopped there.
The next day, I tried to reach him again, but he was not available.
What I realized from the conversation
The conversation simmered in my mind for a few days. This guy was an extreme example of what unkindness and the lack of connection can do to the human soul.
But it reminded me of so many other people around me who do not suffer from depression and yet insist on similar rhetoric.
The idea that the world is tribal resonates closely with the polarisation trend we are experiencing today. Lack of footing — as my writing partner puts it, is a symptom of our post-truth world.
When kindness is perceived as a weakness or received with suspicion by millions around us, it comes as no surprise that suicide rates go up, especially among the youth, up 56% in the US in less than two decades.
It comes from a culture that allows our shadows to flourish like poison ivy. A culture where gentleness gets scarcer, and the middle ground is even rarer to be found — is a culture that is heading for collapse.
I can only hope that more people start to awake from this bad dream, like my anonymous friend, and realize how much it sucks to be in the shadow.
Thank you for reading.
Have an open, eventful, and engaging life!