Doing this thing where I'm more honest about my anxiety and depression with this one friend (I'll call him R) has been more challenging than I expected.
[cw: self-harm mention, anxiety/depression]
To be honest, before all this went down I didn't really think I was that dishonest about my emotions. I know I avoid talking about my more severe years of mental health problems from back in high school, partly because I don't like to relive them, partly because I'm not sure if my friends would see me differently based on some things I experienced back then. Most of my friends at least know that I went through hospitalizations back then, so it's not like it's a total black box.
But I didn't realize how reflexive it is for me to lie about my everyday emotions. It makes sense, though, because a lot of the stuff I experience every day is tied into the more serious stuff I went through back in high school—when I have a bad day, often that expresses itself as an impulse to self-harm, or “hearing voices”-type experiences (I put that in quotes because I don't have true hallucinations, just... very vivid mental imagery of voices/sounds that don't feel entirely under my control). My friends don't know much about my background with those experiences, and I don't want to explain it to them, so I just don't talk about it, which often means... not acknowledging that I had a bad day at all.
Anyway, the other day R called me to talk (he's in another country getting a graduate degree right now, so we talk on the phone regularly) and asked me how I've been doing in the specific voice people use when they really mean “how depressed are you on a scale of 1 to 10” (which I hate, but I know he's trying, so...) and I completely short circuited. I guess that was the exact second when I realized I have no practice with answering that question honestly. Back when I was in crisis mode in high school, I lied automatically about it because I didn't want my response to be used as grounds to hospitalize me again, and giving an honest 8/10 depression level (my parents literally used numerical scales for how sad I was and how much I felt like a danger to myself on any particular day, which made dishonesty very easy...) would result in long and uncomfortable interrogations with questions I didn't know how to answer (“Why are you so depressed?” I don't know, maybe it's the major depressive disorder??) and personal questions about my self-harm habits, et cetera, et cetera.
On top of that, I'm autistic, and as I've learned to pass as neurotypical better and better, I've developed more and more reflexive responses to questions like that. It's a huge boon to me to be able to get through regular small-talk conversations without thinking about my responses. But having knee-jerk reflexive responses to questions like “How are you doing?” also mean it's very hard for me to give a different answer if there's something I want to express. I just say “Oh I'm doing good, and you?” without thinking about it.
The only other option, though, is pausing right there in the conversation to figure out how I'm actually feeling, which is really difficult, awkward, and time-consuming because a) I am very alexithymic and it takes serious effort to actually parse my emotions, and b) one of the ways I cope with my mental health issues is by just ignoring all of my emotions as hard as I can, and it's difficult to turn that off.
So in the actual conversation I pretty much short circuited and stuttered various things for the most uncomfortable five minutes of my week. It surprised me how badly it went. I ended up telling him that I felt fine now, not nearly as depressed as I had felt when I told him how depressed I was the previous week, and that I felt bad for bothering him because I would have gotten over it on my own—which is true, but I failed to mention the other thing I've realized, which is that my depression comes and goes in waves and I have a bad habit of writing off the previous wave as just a fluke that will never happen again as soon as one ends. The whole point of talking to him about being depressed is that acknowledging that I am depressed even if I'm not depressed literally every second of every day, and acknowledging that I still have a problem even when I feel happy, is the first step to making progress towards a solution, rather than only working towards a solution while I'm depressed and dropping all of that whenever I feel better for a few days.
I ended up texting him later and told him basically that I apparently am not capable of acknowledging this stuff out loud, and that he's free to ask me about my emotions verbally, but I can pretty much guarantee that either I'm going to lie, or I'm going to try to not lie and say a bunch of inaccurate stuff anyway because being verbal is really hard. Which sucks, because he's dyslexic and doesn't like to text.
I feel like realizing how deep this dishonesty problem I have runs is really important—not only because being more open about my real feelings could make me feel less alone with my anxiety and depression, but also because I've noticed that it's hard for me to feel emotionally close with other people, and the amount of tactical lying I do about my feelings without even realizing it is probably a big part of that.
Maybe part of the problem is that I rely on verbal communication for talking about my feelings, even though that channel is extremely difficult for me to use. It might be easier to communicate more indirectly/asynchronously, like by sharing art or writing or even pointing people to this blog, so I can take more time to curate my feelings and understand them before I try to communicate them to someone else. I feel strange doing things like that, because it takes more effort on the part of the recipient to read something I wrote or look at art I drew and use that to understand how I'm feeling, as opposed to me just telling them. It seems presumptuous to expect my friends to engage with me like this, because my emotional landscape is so different from most of theirs, and I know it'll take effort and time for them to empathize with me. I know everyone is emotionally complicated, but I sort of feel like my own feelings are too burdensome and complex to expect anyone else to put in the effort to understand them just to feel close to me, an unimportant small bit of moss in the forest of life. But on the other hand I would consider it an honor if a friend shared something like this with me (although I don't think I've been communicating that effectively lately, which is a whole other thing).