Having given myself a little break from what is still a rather raw topic for me I’m ready to jump back into the fray and continue my series on depression. I do still have two areas to cover based on feedback from my previous two essays on the topic. I’m going to give it a try but I can only really speak for myself so I’d appreciate any feedback as to whether my advice would actually have worked for you if you’ve ever struggled with depression. I apologize if it is vague or jumbled, I find it difficult to write with much polish on the topic. Question number one: What can I do for my loved one struggling with depression?
To know how to help someone with depression you need to understand a little bit about what it feels like to be depressed. As I mentioned here, depression can feel a little bit like there are two people in your head, the regular one and the depressed one. The regular one is having just about the same reaction to the depressed person that most people outside your head have. Thoughts like: Why can’t you just get over it? Go get a hobby/keep busy/exercise and you’ll feel better. People have way worse problems than you do and THEY aren’t depressed, have a little perspective. All these things you are saying to yourself all the time. So none of these things are really helpful to have someone else say. You know what, if you’ve thought it, we’ve thought it. Thanks but no thanks on the obvious answers. Often someone will make these helpful suggestions and the depressed person will respond angrily or defensively, and stubbornly seem to refuse to the see the apparent wisdom of the remarks. This is why. We’ve already given ourselves this advice and it didn’t work. If you think you’re irritated by that, if you think it’s aggravating to be around someone who can’t seem to get control of themselves, we are stuck living with that person all the time. You think you’re sick of it? You can’t even imagine. And you do get sick of it. That’s natural. It isn’t healthy to be depressed. It isn’t normal. Nobody wants to feel like that and even empathizing with someone going through it is exhausting. So first, forgive yourself for feeling aggravated by your loved one. Then, please please stay patient.
Stay patient when from your perspective they have little or no reason to be depressed. Depression doesn’t work like that. From the outside, and frankly from the inside at the time, it looked like my depression was just a huge overreaction to a breakup. With 20/20 hindsight I see that the seeds of mental illness probably preceded the breakup by quite a bit, possibly years. Furthermore, there were many many factors that remain private which contributed to my condition. Then there was the snowball effect. Whatever “reasons” there were soon became lost under the weight of my symptoms. At the time I was sleeping an hour or two a night on a good day and went even went a a whole week without any sleep. I lost 20 pounds because the physical pain of my sadness sat in my stomach and stole my appetite. It felt like if I could just throw up the depression somehow I’d immediately be cured. Nobody can really be in their right mind on that little sleep and nutrition. It’s quite possible you don’t know the whole story. It’s also quite possible that no “incident” is the cause. After all, true depression is a chemical imbalance, not poorly controlled emotions.
When you feel like they are completely ungrateful for your efforts, be patient. They are grateful. Or rather, they will be, when they have any energy left for that. One of my great regrets from the year I was very ill is how many people I never thanked. The boss who not only put up with having the world’s flakiest office assistant, but lent me his car to go to town and get away from things sometimes, and had me over to relax and turn my brain off for awhile watching foreign films. I don’t think I ever properly told him how much I appreciated his generosity and understanding. The friends who lived with me while I wandered through life like a ghost. The friends who listened to me while I bawled, over and over again. The new friends who welcomed me into their circle when I was so lonely. The friends who made a point of staying in touch with me even as they enjoyed a semester abroad, all of these people were my life lines. My parents who always picked up the phone and were willing to talk when I called at 3am. The professors who cut me slack when I completely forgot what day of the week it was and missed important assignments, who offered to work with me if I needed to go home so that I wouldn’t lose the semester. This vast network of help I barely even noticed. It wasn’t that I was ungrateful. It was that I was using up every last bit of focus just to put one foot in front of the other, or even to put both feet on the ground and get out of bed. There wasn’t any attention left to take stock of all my blessings.
When it feels like you’ve tried everything you can for them and nothing has worked, be patient. When you’re ready to throw up your hands and give up because you’re obviously not helping, be patient. Don’t ever doubt that noticed or unnoticed your efforts make a difference. I like to say that the keys to surviving depression are love and responsibility. (not the book by John Paul II) More on that in my next but for now a little on that first part, love. Being depressed is incredibly lonely. Love is what pulls us into the human family. All those acts of love from all those caring people kept me going. I was clinging to hope by my fingernails. It was so easy to disappear into my own head, and my own room. Each time someone reached out and touched my life they were keeping up my connections to the rest of the world. And this is the greatest help you can be. Don’t let your loved one disappear. Don’t let them think they’re pain is unnoticed. Don’t talk about their pain non stop. Just keep checking in. Many people, in kindness, completely ignored my deteriorating condition, like it would be prying to mention it. I understand their reserve, and I have done the same thing myself, but at the time I honestly thought they did not see what was happening right before their eyes. So do keep asking periodically how they are doing, or bring up any worrying signs so they have an opportunity to open up. They may not do so, but at least they’ll know they aren’t invisible. Then drop it and suggest doing something. Invite them out. Ask to come over. And if they say no, wait a little and ask again. Keep throwing out those lifelines for them to grab. You never know when they’ll be ready to reach out for one, but when they are, it’s important there is one in reach.