I’m hoping to find some scripts/strategies to employ when I run into someone I’m happy to chat with, like a friend or one of the super friendly baristas at a coffee shop I’m always in, and they ask “so what’s new with you?” or “what have you been up to this week?” when the honest answer is often something like “I managed to leave the house every day” or “Well my house is still messy but I did write 70 thousand words of erotic fanfiction in the past few months” or “I’m sorry but my depression seems to be leaning hard on my memory lately and I have no idea what I did yesterday, let alone last week.”
Sometimes I even have done something I could talk about; there might be a knitting or art project I picked up, I try to take small trips to see friends when I can, and of course plenty of my friends would be happy to talk about the weird fanfic I’ve been writing. But in the moment I rarely remember any of this.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a bar and forgotten the name of every cocktail you have ever enjoyed or even heard of the moment you get the bartender’s attention, but that’s what this feels like. I’m a deer in the headlights and can’t think of something that’s even vaguely interesting and not some form of “I’m super depressed so I can’t remember, sorry.” That’s fine to say sometimes, I know, but I don’t want that to be my response every time someone talks to me in person.
I am getting as much mental health support as I can; I have a good therapist and meds that seem to work as well as anything else could (I tried some new ones last year and it was a disaster), but I’m still struggling a bit; I don’t mind being honest about that, in many circumstances, but I feel so dull and boring when these questions come up and at times it impacts my confidence around other people. I’m trying hard right now to get out more and connect with people because I know that’s good for me but I keep hitting this awkward roadblock. Any thoughts?
I Promise I’m Not This Boring, For Real (he/him)
Hello, you’re not boring, you are ill, and frankly you are kicking ass at trying to manage this illness. Look at everything you are doing: therapy, meds, making time for friends, knitting, writing, and generally Making An Effort. That is so much! It would be okay if you couldn’t do those things, and it would be okay if you were boring, as long as you are kind, but I don’t think you are boring. You wrote a fuckton of erotica, that’s pretty interesting! You are traveling to see people, that’s pretty cool! What’s the best thing you’ve knitted? What kind of art do you make?
You are not boring, but maybe you are bored. You’re bored with being depressed. You’re bored with being you, while depressed. If you’re a place where winter is happening, you’re probably very bored with gray skies and being too cold (and then too hot as you move from inside to outside and your glasses fog up) and then too cold again. Possibly you’re bored with scrolling through the infinite possibilities of things you could be reading, watching, learning, and eating if you could make yourself be in the mood for any of them, and equally bored with scrolling through the news and its daily dose of despair and violence and selfishness, knowing that until you shake off the depression you have limited capacity to do anything about any of it. When you venture out in public where friends and nice baristas live, you’re bored by the angry, mean sounds of your inner critic yammering away inside your head telling you that you’re unfairly sucking up everyone’s time and friendly chit-chat attention. Depression lies. And we can work with bored.
You don’t have to dazzle people with interestingness every time they ask you what’s new with you. You don’t have to be interesting. Kindness >>>>>> Interestingness. Pleasant and boring? Good enough!
If you hate small talk (or do not have energy or interest in more deeply engaging either the speaker or the statement), the fastest way through it is almost always to give the most expected call-and-response. “Hello, how are you today?” “Fine, and you?”
Fine is a lie, so if you are not fine, substitute “Okay” or “Still breathing!” or “Hanging in” or “It is certainly a Tuesday” until you find something brief that comes out of your mouth naturally. People denounce small talk as insincere/ meaningless/trite/a total waste of energy, but a few recurring expected scripts are knowable and repeatable and the early chapters of any foreign language textbooks will get a person through most of the building blocks of “Hello” and “Please” and “Thank you” and “I have two bicycles.” The beauty of a template is that you don’t have to think too much about what to say, if you just fill in the blanks you can be fairly confident you did it correctly. Consider also that most “Hey how are ya?” and “Medium weather we are considering almost having!” passing chitchat means some version of “Hey human, we are both here. I acknowledge you, do you acknowledge me?” “I sure do!” Boring is a-ok here. “What’s new with you?” “Same old, same old” “How’s it going?” “Oh, it’s going.” (“Comment ça va?”/”Oui, ça va” from second-day-of-French-Class)
If we were dogs who did not object to one another’s presence, we’d wag tails and sniff each other’s buttholes. Elephants trumpet and do trunk-face touching stuff. We are humans, so we get variations on “The local sports team, were they not unusually valiant in their latest endeavors?”
My dear Letter Writer, perhaps a better question than how do you be more interesting or remember the interesting stuff you are actually doing is: Do you want to be interesting during these conversations, or do you want to be seen? Because “I’m depressed, actually, but pretty proud I left the house today” or “Can I go with ‘forgetting anything interesting I have to say the second people ask me that’? Because that’s been happening a lot” or “Do you want to hear ‘Pretty okay, and you?’ or do you want to hear about the 70,000 words of fan-fiction I wrote?” check the boxes of both “honest” and “not mean.” What’s the worst thing that happens if you answer honestly with how you really are and what you’ve really been up to, even if it is “I have no idea” or “Everything sucks right now, where do I start?”
Say the “worst” thing happens and you accidentally go from “possibly boring the nice baristas with how boring you are” to “slightly weirding out the nice baristas with how sad you are.” I promise, you will not be the weirdest or saddest customer these people encounter in their day. Baristas are on the front lines of every fucked-up feeling that every single fucked-up person in the world has about capitalism and culture and public spaces and breakfast and standing in line and the correct way to hold money and what does and doesn’t need a bag and what constitutes music and every single human act that can possibly happen in a public restroom. Give me a barista who has been even one week on the job, and I will give you a grizzled, jaded, veteran observer of the human condition, ergo, the worst case scenario (as imagined below) seems pretty survivable to me.
Barista: “Up to anything interesting lately?”
You: “I’m super depressed so I can’t remember, sorry”
Barista: “Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that.”/”Tell me about it.”/”Seems to be the theme this morning.”
Barista: :hands you beverage you ordered:
You: :put tip in jar:
Barista: “Hey, thanks man! I hope you feel better!”
Likely Barista thoughts about you (if they have time to remember you at all): “That guy is nice. I’m sorry he’s sad. He always tips at least a dollar. I’m going to give him an extra shot next time.”
With friends, what’s the worst thing that happens if you forget what you were going to say during the “how are you?” ritual but remember later? “Can you ask me that again in half an hour? My mind keeps going blank even though I am actually doing lots of stuff.” “I’m super-depressed and probably not the most sparkling company lately, but tell me what you’re up to!” If you can’t be interesting, try for interested.
With friends, this won’t be the one and only time you talk to them, yes? You could theoretically text them the next day and say,. “Hey, I totally spaced out when you asked me what’s up lately, but I wrote this juicy thing, so ask me about it next time.”
The worst thing that happens is that your interactions are…basically fine? The best thing that happens is your vulnerability and honesty makes the people around you feel less alone and less like they have to perform and put on a happy face and sparkle and dazzle you. The middle is what will happen most of the time and the middle is okay.
I promise you, I am not bright-siding you. After I first moved here in 2000, I tried to take an improv class during a bad spout of depression in the hope that it would help me make friends and force me to do fun things, and every single moment of class was like the feeling you describe of being thirsty and in a bar and not remembering what beverages even are. My nice teacher and scene partners would do a thing and then it would be my turn to “Yes, and?” them and add my own thing, and I would just fucken stand there silently like I was Amelie, minus the fun smirk or any trace of whimsy.
I couldn’t even do the warmups: Zip-Zap-Existential Dread. “Big booty, big booty, aw yeahhhh Big Booty! Big One Booty Number One!” “Number One Big Booty!!” “Big Booty Number Two!” Sorry, Big Booty Number Two will have to get back to you, she has analysis paralysis.
People would laugh at first because extremely deadpan non-reactions are funny, “Bartleby the Improviser” is a pretty good bit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a bit, it was me, a person who is literally made of words, not being able to think of any words and make them leave my mouth no matter how long my teacher made encouraging faces and gestures, and no matter how many helpful suggestions my classmates shouted, no matter who patted me on the back and told me I’d get it in time with more practice.
I would love to tell you I stuck with it, I showed up, I just let it happen, and eventually I got it, but I didn’t. During the second or third class I broke down crying and then cried harder because everyone was so nice to me and then I ran out of the building and never went back or saw those people again. I’m not sure I’ve ever been back to that block of the city, such was the smoking crater of shame I’d left behind. (I did eventually answer one email from the teacher to say that I was ok but was quitting class so they wouldn’t think I died).
The thing is? If I had gone back? They would have welcomed me with open arms. If I’d ever managed to squeak out a sentence in a scene, ever? They possibly would have carried me around on their shoulders like a triumphant general or champion sports team. They didn’t think I was an asshole or that I was boring and had nothing to say, they knew that I was freaking out and they wanted to hang out with me and help me freak out slightly less. I was ashamed, but that was shame I brought with me into the room because my brain is an jerklord and I carry a spare shame battery everywhere. But I wasn’t letting them down by dramatically sucking at improv or having human feelings. “She’s kind of weird and intense sometimes and she freezes in improv scenes” wasn’t a life sentence of me being a terminally unlikeable person, no more than your periodic moments of self-doubt and cognitive overload make you an inherently boring one. Depression lies. It’s not that you’re a conversational superstar right now, maybe you truly aren’t, but also, you don’t have to be one. Your baristas are glad you showed up, every customer they serve who isn’t an asshole dilutes the daily asshole pool. Your friends are glad you showed up, they want you to be okay and happy and specifically yourself way more than they need you to be your worst enemy’s* idea of what “interesting” might be.
(*You. You are your own nemesis right now, welcome to Depression.)
The problem is actually incredibly boring, when you think about it: We have mean brains, and it turns out that being mean all the time is really boring. And the fixes are also boring, because there are no shortcuts to “Keep showing up when you can, give it time, actually feel your feelings, and try to be nice to yourself.”
You are doing your goddamn best, and so far I like you very much. If I had an extra shot of espresso you could have it. I hope you can be a little bit nice to yourself today. If you can’t, that’s okay. Let’s turn up the music and be quiet and sad and watch the Somebodys go by.