Alone in Crowded Rooms: A personal struggle with depression

by Ben van der Ger

Credit: Carmen Fenech.
Disclaimer: The recommendations made and experiences described in this article are personal to my time with depression and instability. It is not a universal view on what all depression looks like, or how depression should be treated.

Suddenly, my energy to keep talking disappeared. I left lunch with my two roommates at the E-Café in the McConnell Engineering Building abruptly, and started making my way alone towards the Shatner University Centre .  I walked inside, passing a few stairs, corners, and doors until I was sitting on the ground in an empty room on the fourth floor, with my back to the entrance. On the other side of the door I knew there was a campus full of people that would want to support me if they knew what I was going through, but all I felt in the moment was loneliness and pain. Sorrow so deep and thick, I couldn’t wade out of it no matter how much I shook my legs. So I shook, and shook, and shook.

*Ring ring* *Ring ring*

Clearing my throat and wiping my nose, I stared at my phone.

*Ring ring* *Ring ring* *Click*

Me: Hello?

N/A: Hey! What are you doing right now? I could really use a break, I’m feeling pretty drained.

Do I tell her? No. It’d probably be good for me to be around somebody right now. Leave it. Go see her.

Me: Oh my gosh, I’ve got way too much food that I’m not going to eat, let me bring you some! Where are you? Let me come feed youuuu.

Is this helping? I think so.

N/A: Yay! Blackader, come, come.

Me: Kk coming. Come meet me in the lobby and you can tell me all about your day.


A sigh, followed by an empty laugh, escapes my mouth and echoes around the room. What’s happening to me? Just get back up.

Credit: Ben van der Ger.

The first time I admitted to myself that my emotional footing was not as stable as it used to be was in the summer of 2015, between my second and third year of university. I didn’t realize it until months after the event above: After my mom had gotten sick, after my girlfriend at the time and I split up, and after losing loved one after loved one to cancer and other diseases. Instead, it came when a group of people I loved went out of their way to organize a party for me after I finished my Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

Walking into a room full of people, green strands hanging from the ceiling, and friends in multi-coloured cone-shaped hats greeting me at the door, all I wanted to do was make them feel the way they wanted me to—happy. But I didn’t have the energy. I was at the helm of a boat with no rudder, spinning the wheel wildly with no result.

I smiled widely while greeting my friend in the library and walking into the party, but internally, my emotions felt the result of whatever was hiding deep in the back of my mind, and fighting it was exhausting.

My instability was a constant process of waiting—whether it was waiting for highs to drop suddenly to particularly thick lows, or for lows to stretch long enough that they could be broken out of by a rush of unpredictable positivity (from a song, an expression of love, or anything, really).

Waiting came with its anxieties. I could never fully enjoy the highs because of the feeling that something darker was waiting around the corner. In Psychology Today, Art Markham, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, said students often suffer from ‘“waiting anxiety,” thus experiencing rumination, before, during, and after taking the LSAT. Rumination is typically a neutral term, but Markham redefines it as “[thinking] repeatedly about the source of one's anxiety and [worrying] about the outcome.”

Applying Markham’s definition of rumination to a situation where depression was the outcome, understanding its source and how to work my way out of it became my obsession.

My instability transformed from a period of waiting to a period of self-recognition. I found myself taking a back seat on my own emotional decisions, and I looked inward to find anything that would make the process more pleasant and worth it. It was, and continues to be, a period of incredible change. The process of climbing back into the driver’s seat entails many things: Asking what makes or made you feel better or worse, what fuels your productivity, what gives you purpose, and what provokes negative or triggering emotions. Such questions can be largely transformative, but you can only ask yourself so many questions and change so much before others start noticing and asking you some as well.

When asked if depression looks the same in everyone, the National Institute of Mental Health answers bluntly: “No.”

Some people respond well to the type of support that takes the form of the ever-so-overused question, “How’s it going?” And some don’t. What’s the best way to tell what somebody dealing with instability might want? Ask.

“Do you want me asking you how you’re doing?” If the answer is “No,” then don’t. If the answer is “I don’t know,” then ask when it feels appropriate; there really is no hard rule about when that time is. If you get a response that indicates they might not want to talk about it, then move on to the next topic. If the answer is “Yes I'd like you to,” or “Yeah, feel free to ask anything,” apply the same logic as if they said maybe.

Some people might find talking therapeutic, and some might not, confirmed Dr. Robert Whitley, assistant professor of Psychiatry at McGill, and principal investigator of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group (SPRING).

“Letting [someone] know that you’re there for them if they need an ear to listen can be helpful,” Whitley said.

For me, talking was my way of letting people in and attempting to bridge the gap of understanding from different lived experiences.

It may seem trivial to ask if somebody is okay with being asked a question, but in my experience it reinforced the importance of clarity and being upfront about other people's comfort levels. Besides the banality associated with micro-adjustments to everyday conversations, they all remain expressions of love that may, for some, inspire feelings of care and companionship during a time of loneliness and instability. Personally, these questions helped to flesh out day-to-day solutions, but in itself, the process of communicating could remain and can still be difficult.

Is it wrong for me to need help? This question popped up constantly in my experience with instability. I didn’t want to feel like I relied on anybody else to feel whole or healthy again. I felt, and to some extent still feel, responsible for my hitting my ‘wall.’ Over the summer and throughout Fall 2015, I rejected romantic relationships the moment I associated them with requiring someone else to make me feel complete. I constantly dwelled over the fear of burdening anyone with my problems.

“This year is gonna be a lot for me,” I said. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can get in a relationship right now.”

I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t telling the entire truth.

Credit: Chloé Laflamme.

To cope with my inability to accept help, it turned out that giving support fit perfectly as a replacement for receiving it. I didn’t want others to feel the way I did, so I found purpose again in providing comfort and education on mental health issues. I wanted to be a resource for those feeling the same or similar to myself, those who felt alone in crowded rooms, and those who wanted to reach out and talk about how they were feeling. But the wall that separated my ideologies from my actions was the inability to follow my own advice.

Even my attempts to communicate and let people in lacked something. I approached every situation as an educational tool, and less of a learning space for myself. As a result, an emotional divide between my words and their content was always present. I felt happy for anyone that found me helpful, but grew sad watching my knowledge go wasted on myself. This emotional duality became my reality, always elated and depressed at the same time. For those in similar experiences, this can be incredibly confusing and isolating.

When replying to questions such as “How are you?” it wasn’t surprising when people were confused by the answer, “I’m really depressed,” said while laughing heavily. In a lot of cases, it was met with a response spit through weaker laughter of, “Really?” or, “Why are you laughing?”

For those who might find themselves confused or thrown off by such honesty, it is important to remember that different emotions don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Just because somebody expresses outward happiness while communicating that he or she is sad, doesn’t mean that this person is lying or being insincere.

“The same way a broken leg can limit some aspects of your life, mental health can sometimes overwhelm your mind, but it doesn’t limit your ability to feel a range of emotions,” Whitley said.

The assumption that seemingly conflicting emotions can’t be felt simultaneously forces some people to choose one or the other, often feeling like their sad emotions are not welcome and further pushing them inwards.

For some, laughing or smiling when talking about tough issues may serve a purpose—perhaps as a defence mechanism, or in my experience, a way to force myself to not feel ashamed for the way I was feeling by making the topic more approachable or light-hearted. For others, it may not. What’s important is to recognize that regardless of how one chooses to speak about their experience, each sentence should be valued as an attempt to reach out, and listeners should stay conscious of what might accidentally make them feel ashamed.

Emotional shaming and discounting, whether intentional or not, is largely enforced by the gendered emotional roles of men, and has a prevalent impact on their depression and suicide rates.

According to Jane Powell, in The Guardian, more men below the age of 35 died from suicide in the UK than road accidents, murder, and HIV/AIDS combined in 2011. Powell partially attributes this to her theory that for some men, asking for help may be seen as a failure. Breaking out of the typical set of emotions associated with masculinity can be difficult for many self-identified men; however, there are potential solutions to this problem already in the works. On a macro scale, feminist campaigns aimed at relieving societal roles of women by also alleviating societal roles of men can help push back against some causes of these high suicide rates. On a micro scale, what can be helpful is making sure that the people you know who may be dealing with instability (or whatever they define it as) are aware that they can express typically ‘non-masculine’ emotions. The decision to express those emotions is up to them, but opening the door for it to be a possibility can be incredibly comforting and might inspire more trust or openness between the parties involved.

For those who find themselves in the company of somebody struggling with mental health issues, it’s important to know that you don’t have to be this person’s saviour. I am by no means suggesting that it is one’s social obligation to take on every support role that presents itself. In cases where it may be too damaging to your own mental health, too exhaustive, or really for any reason at all, it’s completely fair to take a step back. Every situation should be handled differently. In my case, hearing something along the lines of, “I love you so much, but I might not be able or qualified enough to be a helpful support system. Do you want help looking into other resources together though?” would have been helpful in gauging what kind of relationship I should be associating with that person. In similar cases to this, where a person's immediate support structures might not be able to help, it’s important for alternative resources to aptly available.

McGill provides some services, like the McGill’s Mental Health Services (MMHS), but, like many services, it isn’t perfect and the waitlists are incredibly long.

“[Waitlists are] delaying students [from getting] access to crucial care by months,” Whitley said. “In regards to the admin [...] much much more can be done.”

According to Emily Yung, mental health coordinator at MMHS, the average wait time is at least a few weeks.

“It’s about two weeks long to see a psychiatrist... and four months for individual psychotherapy,” Yung said. “[With] the largest proportion of students who seek care [at MMHS going] for depression or anxiety.”

Credit: Juliana Bergen.

Initiatives like Mentoring Across Campus, and The Buddy Program do a good job at building better student-faculty relations, which may help some students feel less like just another number, and lift pressure off MMHS by shifting the focus away from bandaid solutions to more preventative measures.

Yet, according to Whitley, these services are largely underpromoted and underperforming. He insisted that more focus must be put on these preventative measures. Professors can seem unapproachable in university settings, and though I never had a bad experience managing my workload during my struggle, many other students do. The added pressure can contribute to already existing symptoms.

“Mental health needs much more than services […] social determinants of mental health on campus [such as] loneliness […] peer pressure to be popular, drink, or have sex, and increasingly heavy workloads all can play a large role [in causing depression],” Whitley said. “Faculty members should be getting compulsory mental health training where they learn […] how to treat these issues compassionately.”

Training for a standardized Canadian program does exist on campus, through the Mental Health First Aid training sessions, however it is not mandatory for all staff, and even if it were, it might not be possible due to issues of space. MMHS is struggling to physically fit more doctors, and there just aren’t the human resources available to manage that many people moving around.

“Right now I’m the only trainer [at Mental Health Services],” Yung said. “All the offices are full [... and] resources are not increasing to meet the rising demand.”

If a training program were implemented, outsourcing some of the work to one or more of the five federally certified Mental Health First Aid Trainers in Montreal could alleviate the weight on the McGill’s services.

But even with a mandatory staff training at McGill, a Canadian standardized program might not properly address stressors affiliated with specific settings, such as factors that affect McGill students, or campus resources to point to. When temperatures dropped around the same time workloads increased, and the average hours of sunlight per day decreased in Montreal, I noticed a considerable return of my instability, but didn’t understand why.

According to Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s Mental Health Coordinator Anya McMurrer, a large problem for many McGill students’ mental health is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which—especially in combination with excess stress from a large workload—can be destabilizing.

Collaboration with some of the amazing student-run services such as McGill Students’ Nightline, the Peer Support Network, and the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society [SACOMSS] could help alleviate organizational stress on the system when trainers are needed, as well as create a program much more tailored to McGill; however, I disagree with Dr. Whitley on the emphasis of compassion as its focal point.

Compassion, as defined by Dr. Emma Seppala, the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, is “The emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.”

When I was slouched over in that room on the fourth floor of the Shatner University Centre, I found myself looking for something else. I wanted somebody to lay or sit down with quietly, to silently feed off of each other’s energy and understanding, or somebody that could match my tone when talking about my mental state—whether through light-hearted laughter or serious responses.

But I never wanted somebody to help me. Compassion can help, but what I came to value most in people during my struggle with instability and depression was empathy. I didn’t need a saviour; not every depressed person does. Some might, but what I, as well as others like me need, is for you to make an attempt at understanding.

One needs empathy to be compassionate, but understanding the former may be harder than the latter. As contenders for the generation with the lowest levels of empathy, we all need to make an active effort to read about or talk to people with these experiences in order to start working those mental muscles.

Finally, to those who might find themselves reading this from a less-than-optimistic place—you are not alone. You are not your depression. You can make it through this. If you find yourself wanting or needing a hand, know that many people who are reading these words will want to give it to you. I know I will if you want to reach out.

Credit: Kareem Ibrahim.
Author’s note

This article for me has been the culmination of months of struggling, and to some extent a way for me to begin to own and use a part of myself that was largely debilitating. But beyond writing this for myself, I also wanted to write this as both a thank-you letter and an apology. To clarify, I am not sorry for how I’ve been feeling, but rather for not properly being able to express my love and thanks to all my friends, family, and the community that has been around me these few months. Knowingly or not, your constant expressions of love, though it maybe not be registered traditionally, have kept me running. It’s because of that love that I get out of bed early every morning, and it’s because of that love that I’m working my way out of that period of instability. Thank you.

For those who might want to look into some of McGill’s on-campus resources, here’s a link to the McGill Mental Health Hub, found at Sending my love, Ben.