Losing Friends to Depression: an ambivalent necessity

Mental illness is a community of strangers. Those suffering from major depressive disorders constantly feel alienated in social situations and relationships. Depression makes friendships hard to come by and inevitably strained. It can be hard to maintain a lasting and consistent connection with others when one’s own mind prefers solitude or fears betrayal or loss. Oftentimes the fear of rejection or inadequacy blocks a depressive person to reach out to others who they would like to get to know better. Other times, having recurring patterns of depression and seclusion is too hard to understand or too much of a hassle for neurotypical friends to feel like keeping in touch. Friends then become all the more important for those suffering from mental illness. Depression sets its sufferer alienated from others and having a close ally and confidant can make all the difference. However, just because someone with a mental illness has trouble maintaining friendships due to their changing moods does not mean that they have to hold on to every friend who comes their way. Unfortunately, depressive individuals can easily find themselves within a toxic friendship. Sadly, suffering from major depression and feeling worthless means that one can get too carried away with the attention and not notice the damage the other does to them.

Recently there has been an influx of articles on the importance for self-care. Clearly having close friends is just as important for the maintenance and care for one’s well-being. But having toxic friends who further stigmatize your mental illness cannot be self-care, but instead are a form of self-harm. The pattern of harm when remaining in stigmatizing friendships mirrors those in other forms of abusive relationships. What is too often forgotten is that emotional abuse is just as harmful if not more harmful than physical abuse.

My argument is that friendships that foster emotional abuse must end. When depressed, it is too easy to believe the blame is upon oneself and oneself alone. This is hardly the case.

What is hard is that oftentimes a harmful or toxic friend only means the best intentions towards their friends, but nevertheless repeat the same patterns of abuse. The following are questions to consider if a depression-sufferer is worried that their friends and allies are actually doing them more stigmatizing harm than good:

  1. Are you anxious whenever you make plans with this friend?

Making plans with a good friend should not be the cause of stress. Repeatedly feeling the pang of an oncoming anxiety attack when thinking about spending time with someone betrays that your relationship with them is strained and troubled.

  1. Do you feel like this friend has a hard time listening to you or being careful/aware of you triggers?

A good friend should be responsive. Good intentions mean nothing if one is not paying the proper attention to your concerns.

  1. Does this friend mention how much they have sacrificed for you? Do they ever seem satisfied with what they think they get in return from you?

This sort of rhetoric converts a friendship into an economy of give and take. The insistence upon reminding the other of actions done “out of love” are not actually love, but a transaction. Introducing the concept of debt into a friendship is an immediate cause for concern and emotional blackmail.

  1. Does your friend police your feelings, suggesting that your feelings are “wrong”?

This is a form of gaslighting, turning your mood disorder against you and claiming that you are incapable of having rational reactions to anything. Feelings are never “wrong” and you should never be made to feel inadequate due to your gut reaction to events.

  1. Does your friend treat others with mood disorders with any respect?

Someone with double-standards when it comes to ableism and refers to others’ disabilities as “crazy”, “overdramatic”, or “difficult” cannot be trusted. Someone who makes fun of a mutual friend for having a panic attack is not likely to be empathetic to your own.

Ultimately, depression and other mood disorders demonstrate a need for a higher quality friend. But at no point should someone with a mood disorder feel that they are too discerning when it comes to finding someone to trust. Frankly, expecting high standards from others is a necessity for survival. Disassociating from toxic friendships is hard. There is always the trap of falling straight back into these harmful patterns, but it is much better for yourself to cut ties when possible to those who hurt you, even if they claim they are doing what is best for you. It is not up to the depressive to change their condition; it is up to the ally to better oneself in dealing with one’s friend.

What I am calling for in this piece is for someone in such an emotionally abusive relationship to step up and resist stigma. This may come in many forms: either a direct confrontation, or a passive disassociation ignoring invitations to go out or other messages from the abusive friend. While the former may seem to have more closure and dignity, I think the latter approach can be just as vital. An abusive friend may beg for forgiveness without feeling real remorse or change. I have found that there are many ways that an abuser can talk about forgiveness, and that all of them are wrong; it is only up to the person who is harmed to discuss forgiveness. If you feel that your friend has continually put you down and made you feel worse, there is little to forgive in this person.

For those suffering depression, having a stigmatizing friend is worse than having no close friends at all. It is a hard process to find friends who are actually supportive of fluctuating mood disorders, but it makes all the difference.

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Why do people assume that I am a woman? – An interesting phenomena of being Pseudonymous

Last night, a friend and I went to see Professor Myisha Cherry (@myishacherry) give a brilliant talk entitled “Acting ‘Mean’: Queering Hegemonic Masculinity through a Cultivation of Human Virtues” for the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Public Philosophers series. Professor Cherry and I have followed each other on twitter for years now without ever meeting and have had an extensive history of discussing things back and forth through @-replies. I was excited to finally meet her in person and hear her work more directly and told her ahead of time that I would be there.

The room in the library where these talks are held, I found that there was no cell reception. After my friend and I found our seats, I quite shamefully stepped out to send a couple tweets.

In this time, Professor Cherry spotted and introduced herself to my friend, a woman, apparently thinking that she was me. After the talk, My friend and I came up to her to congratulate her and so that I could introduce myself. She and Professor Cherry picked up a conversation for a while while I stood off to the side, awkwardly. My friend then introduced me and I told Professor Cherry that I was Cranky.

Professor Cherry then took a step back in shock. Doubling back, she said “I always thought that you were a woman.” She did not know why she had always thought that, but had nevertheless. Given that her talk itself was about masculinity and its cultural perceptions, this made for a very interesting discussion that I want to now open up to a larger audience.

She’s not alone in this assumption. Over the years that I have maintained a psuedonymous account, first as @crankystudent and now as @crankyethicist, I have had several people who readily/openly assumed that I am a woman.

This has come from a handful of interactions. I have been called ‘sister’ by several feminists, or in several cases as well, I’ve introduced myself to people and have had a weird reaction from them in which they have disclosed that they also thought I was a woman. A handful have apologized for the misattribution, which assumes that I am offended by people thinking that I am a woman. I am not. Given the traditional views of masculinity, I am far from offended that people do not readily assume that I am male. I’m thankfully privileged enough to be comfortable with who I am despite cultural hegemonic demands on what can pass for masculine. I actively try to not be hostile, domineering in conversations, cruel, or patronizing, all of which seem to be “masculine” traits.

The belief that I am a woman through the lens of my pseudonymous twitter account is interesting. This is by no means a universal belief, a handful have guessed correctly that I am male, but those who have thought that I am a woman seem deeply-entrenched in that assumption. That is, deeply-entrenched enough to comment on it when I reveal myself as a male.

But what is it that makes people assume that I am a woman? What is it about the Cranky persona that brings up this confusion again and again? What does this say about masculinity?

I have a handful of theories, but I would love to hear from others as well.

In the beginning of actively using the @crankystudent handle, I developed it as a gender-neutral parody account of being a graduate student in philosophy. My initial thought behind this was that I didn’t want to exclude anyone outright. There are enough white males in philosophy. I did my best to cover my tracks and avoided gendered language or much in the way of autobiographical information. Over time, I lost interest in being a parody account and instead focused on developing my own voice as a thinker. My alter-ego absorbed me, as many do. I became a parody of myself alone. I remain pseudonymous, but have often introduced myself as myself either in person or online to those who I have had some extended interaction with and have deemed I can trust.

As time and my degree progressed, I started to fill in some personal information here and there, including that I live in New York City and that I am married. For a long time, I referred to the Iron Frau as simply ‘significant other’ which I then dropped to ‘spouse’ to shave off some characters for tweets. The intentional use of vaguely-nongendered language to describe my wife seems to be part of the source of some confusion/obfuscation, on top of my previous holding out on my own cismale-gendered existence.

When the Iron Frau then created her own pseudonymous twitter account to complement my own, I dropped any worries of gender ambiguity. However, it seems that those who followed me during my parody days still readily assume that I am female.

My hypothesis:

I do not actively tweet while identifying myself as a male, nor do I try to stoop myself into hypermasculine fights online. I try to stay out of pissing matches as much as I can. I am not ashamed of my nonconformity with culturally-heteronormative ‘masculine’ traits. I often tweet on feminist issues and retweet many women who write on feminist issues. I do not actively posture masculinity because I have nothing to prove to anyone on that front online.

Additionally, I tweet extensively on emotions and feelings. I often talk about struggling with depression and an anxiety disorder. The cultural ideal of masculinity is that males must suppress their feelings. I instead write extensively on the importance of emotions as motivating factors. This undercuts a position of masculinity.

It would appear, then, that the absence of masculine-posturing is culturally-perceived as feminine. Masculinity is such an insecure position of hegemonic domination that any refrain from proving one’s ‘manhood’ in a pseudonymous position suggests some form of negation of that manhood. I didn’t maintain gender-neutrality in being anonymous; people still use a placeholder-pronoun and form an idea of who I am from my tweets. My online persona fills out a person in the minds of others. There is something about the persona that drives people away from thinking that I am a male. It seems that my saying nothing about my gender has made it hard to believe that Cranky could be male.

The western societal view of masculinity is that it must constantly prove its worth as being masculine through stoic yet aggressive posturing. If one does not posture/disclose masculinity, one is perceived as feminine. My reluctance to engage in gender performativity leads to confusion over my identity from others.

This is at least my theory, and I do want to hear from others on this.