Living with a depression is hard at best. Living with someone who is depressed can be difficult too. When a friend or loved one is suffering, it’s normal to want to help, but not always easy to know what to do. Speaking from experience, the last thing you want to do is to be social and surrounded by other people. There are times where I’ve wanted…or needed… to maintain an outward appearance of normal. Other times the depression is so deep it’s not possible to hide it.
Either way, you just want to be left alone.
Trying to maintain appearances is usually an exercise in self-deception. In my experience, I feel like I’m doing just fine. I’m going about my business as usual, with no indication that anything is wrong.
But who am I kidding.
I’m normally an outgoing, gregarious person. Generally upbeat, positive, and always have a joke or funny story for every appropriate opportunity. At work or at home, I’m the life of the party. That’s kind of difficult to do when life has no meaning and all hope is lost. You think you’re pulling it off, but people care about you know better.
And they want to help.
If you’ve never experienced the horror of depression, it’s really impossible to understand. People tend to believe they can emphasize; they know what it’s like to be sad. We’ve all been sad. The truth is, most people can’t even truly sympathize. Without knowing what you’re going through, how can they offer anything relative?
So what is there to do?
I think that the real issue here is what you can’t, or shouldn’t do. I’ve been seeing the same lady for years now, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re in love. And she knows that there’s something wrong with the way I’m feeling. But she has absolutely no understanding of any mental health issues and completely clueless about what any of it means. The strange part is, she herself suffers from a number of different issues, including depression. She doesn’t have the self-awareness or even knows that she’s has problems to address. She has developed coping skills to insulate herself from the feelings she is experiencing. Her way of dealing with everything is to stay frantically busy. She throws herself into work, and from the time she gets home until she falls into bed exhausted, she’s cleaning, doing projects, researching hobbies or anything else to keep from thinking. I’ve tried to get her into therapy, but she doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong that she needs to address. But that’s not the point here. What I’m getting to is that even though she has a lot of the same issues, she has no idea how to help.
And what she does do is absolutely the worst thing I need.
A large part of what I’m dealing with involves an overwhelmingly stressful job. I’ve worked in many places that have a lot of pressure, but they’ve never even come close to the situation I’m dealing with now. Just for example, on any given day I’ll have between 800 and 900 UNREAD emails that I’m supposed to respond to. I’m expected to resolve issues for up to 200 customers at once, and am constantly yelled at (literally) by all involved. It’s 12 to 16 hours a day of being told what a horrible job I’m doing.
And she tells me that she’s had stressful jobs too, and sometimes you just have to put your head down and deal with it the best you can.
Really? Just deal with it? Even if there wasn’t the constant, overwhelming bombardment of demands and criticism, I’m very dedicated to do a good job. And that is totally impossible in this environment. It’s not something I can just deal with. And frankly, it pisses me off that she thinks she has been in the same situation. She works for State Government, and there is no job there that has the same kind of stress. Not even close. So please don’t tell me that you’ve been in the same situation and that it can be acceptable.
She thinks that it’s her fault that I feel so bad. She’s constantly asking what she’s done to me and why am I so upset with her. I’ve told her over and over that I’m depressed, and it’s not because of her or any other individual. There are external triggers, but she’s not one of them. Her own insecurities however inadvertently take precedence over my situation. Now, bear in mind that before I got so depressed, I supported her through some absolutely horrible times and addressed her needs before my own. I feel like it’s a two way street, and now that I need her, she can’t get passed her issues.
She gets upset that she can’t ‘fix’ anything. She cares about me, and doesn’t want to see me suffer, but when she can’t do anything active to make it go away, she gets very frustrated, and eventually gets angry. Not in a mean way, but angry in general that she can’t do anything to help. I can tell you this, getting angry doesn’t help.
Just snap out of it! That is probably the worst. If it were that easy, do you think I’d chose to be in this state? Oh shit! Is that what I should do? I’ll just hoist up my own petard, trade out my feelings for happy ones, and shake it off. Wish I had thought of that! Thanks! Talk about a lack of understanding.
So what’s to be done?
Ultimately, getting through a depression comes from within. Not suggesting that it just ‘goes away’ (although that can happen sometimes). What I mean is finding a way to take care of yourself and develop the environment that promotes healing. That’s not an easy thing to do of course. Frequently medication is the first step. Depression can be strictly clinical, or over time can become clinical. What that means of course is that the chemicals that control mood change, and it is a physical issue. Medication addresses that. Serotonin and dopamine for example can have a direct impact. And there are medications available to level out these chemicals. It’s just a matter of finding the one that helps.
For me, having a good therapist is also key. Fortunately, I’ve been seeing the same therapist for years, and we’ve developed a good working relationship. She’s known me long enough, and we’ve been through this together so many times she knows what I respond to the best. But if you don’t already have a therapist, much like medication you just have to find the right one. Give it a fair chance, but if you aren’t finding it helpful there’s nothing wrong with trying another one.
Exercise is important. That’s a hard one as it takes some self-discipline to find the energy to commit to it. You don’t have to start off spending hours in a gym pumping iron from day one. Even a simple walk around the block is going to be helpful. I decided I’d try to start riding a bike after 20 or so years. My anticipation was that I’d take a slow ride down a scenic trail that’s near my house. I actually surprised myself, and within days was riding 15 miles! And you can’t believe the difference it made. By the time I get home, my blood pressure is (almost) normal, I have more energy, and my mood has improved dramatically. That’s not a solution by any means; I can’t ride all the time, and the effects don’t last but for so long. In conjunction with everything else it makes a difference.
I’ve been through some of the things you can do for yourself. And expressed some things that definitely do not work. So the question remains, what can YOU do to help?
I always hear… Just be supportive. But what the heck does that mean? My girl thinks she’s being supportive, but she’s far from it. What I find helpful is:
Be sympathetic. I know, I said it’s difficult to be sympathetic if you haven’t experienced depression directly. And that’s true. What you can sympathize with is the fact that I’m going through something horrible that you can’t understand. And express it that way. “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m sorry that you feel bad”.
Listen without making suggestions. Generally speaking, I know what I need to do. I don’t need you telling me what I should do. Having a quiet ear that I can talk through my feelings can help get some things out of my system. And sometimes (Like with my therapist) just talking about the problems can sometimes give you solutions. My therapist is awesome with this. Many times I finish our sessions with an “Aha” moment.
Allow time to be depressed. What I mean by this is, let me be depressed. It’s real, it’s not going away overnight, and sometimes you just need to ‘settle in’ to the feelings and go with it. Depression can come from suppressed feelings and emotions, and sometimes what can help is to let go and accept what you’re really feeling.
Let it be about me. It’s not good to always have attention on yourself; sometimes you have to make it about others. But when you’re depressed, hearing about someone else’s problem, or how somebody has it worse is not what you want or need to hear. When you’re in this state you believe that no one could possibly feel any worse.
Don’t tell me it’s not so bad. How do you know how bad it is? And believe me, when I’m depressed it’s bad. It’s as bad as it can be.
Help take care of the little day to day things. One time I was going through a really bad depression, and a friend of mine would randomly show up with a cooked dinner. Other times she would bring me groceries that she knew I needed. Once while she knew I was at a Dr. appointment, she cleaned up my house. At the time I didn’t have the energy to take care of any of that myself, but being fed and in a clean house made a difference.
Be available. When you are down and feeling alone, nothing makes it worse than to reach out to someone and they aren’t there, or they don’t have the time for you. That’s within reason of course… you can’t call every night at 3:00am and expect them to be there for you. Walking out of a meeting at work to talk to you isn’t a realistic expectation either. Just being acknowledged makes a world of difference. Set the ground rules (No 3:00am calls, leave messages at work), but let them know you care about them and will be there as much as possible.
Is this a complete ‘list’ of the do’s and don’ts of helping a friend or loved one through a depression? Is this what’s going to work for everyone? Of course not. These are just some of the things that I find helpful, and not helpful when dealing with my own depressions. And even then, some things may be helpful one time that are detrimental other times.
Depressions are intensely personal, and unique every time. There’s one thing I can think of that will help someone help you get through such a bad time. Being supported in the best way for you boils down to one thing.
Let them know what you need.