Dear Captain Awkward,
This has been on my mind a while, but seems a good time to ask. What is the best way to express to someone who is depressed (or isn’t depressed at that moment in time but has depression) that you are there to talk to / for whatever they need? I’ve been trying to find words to express it to a couple of friends but failing – as whenever I feel I’ve drafted the words to make clear it’s not just the polite ‘if you need me, call’, it starts sounding like it’s about me, ‘my need’ to help them – the word ‘I’ crops up a little too often. So I say nothing instead of risking them going dark about their thoughts – the opposite of what I intend.
My wordage fails at two points:
1) Everyone seems to say they’ll be there if a friend needs help, not everyone means it. (And from what one of my depressed friends says, they don’t believe it either way.)
2) One of them says when down, they need to completely introvert and left alone as they recoup their energies. I’d be happy to do this (being an introvert myself and knowing the exhaustion of having to explain why you don’t want to see people to be ‘cheered up’), but I know they’ve had suicidal thoughts in the past. I worry that I can’t tell when they’re isolating themself for recovery, and when they’re isolating themself thinking there aren’t people who care/getting worse.
So, I guess – I’m looking for words on expressing empathy and my attempts at understanding – but also tips on how to know what’s helpful, if it goes against what a person actually says. Or should you never go against what a person says, even if you worry?
They aren’t the closest friends to me, in that I don’t know their families/local friends, which perhaps makes things harder – I can’t plug into the network of others who might support them. But they are friends, and I care and … I don’t know how to express it usefully.
Still too many ‘I’s, eh, Captain?
Self- (and other-) absorbed
This is a complicated thing, because isolating yourself to recover when you’re an introvert and isolating yourself because your brain is trying to kill you look identical, even to the person who is doing the isolating (Hello, Winter 2013-2014). Depression is a liar that tells you that it is normal to be sad and numb, and it makes you hide from other people because they might interfere with its narrative of your life.
I think one thing you can do to help your friends who are depressed is to reach out to them not in the spirit of helping, but in the spirit of liking them and wanting their company. “I’m here to help if you ever need me” is good to know, but hard to act on, especially when you’re in a dark place. Specific, ongoing, pleasure-based invitations are much easier to absorb. “I’m here. Let’s go to the movies. Or stay in and order takeout and watch some dumb TV.” “I’m having a party, it would be really great if you could come for a little while.” Ask them for help with things you know they are good at and like doing, so there is reciprocity and a way for them to contribute. “Will you come over Sunday and help me clear my closet of unfashionable and unflattering items? I trust your eye.” “Will you read this story I wrote and help me fix the dialogue?” “Want to make dinner together? You chop, I’ll assemble.” “I am going glasses shopping and I need another set of eyes.” Remind yourself why you like this person, and in the process, remind them that they are likable and worth your time and interest.
Talk to the parts of the person that aren’t being eaten by the depression. Make it as easy as possible to make and keep plans, if you have the emotional resources to be the initiator and to meet your friends a little more than halfway. If the person turns down a bunch of invitations in a row because (presumably) they don’t have the energy to be social, respect their autonomy by giving it a month or two and then try again. Keep the invitations simple; “Any chance we could have breakfast Saturday?” > “ARE YOU AVOIDING ME BECAUSE YOU’RE DEPRESSED OR BECAUSE YOU HATE ME I AM ONLY TRYING TO HELP YOU.” “I miss you and I want to see you” > “I’m worried about you.” A depressed person is going to have a shame spiral about how their shame is making them avoid you and how that’s giving them more shame, which is making them avoid you no matter what you do. No need for you to call attention to it. Just keep asking. “I want to see you” “Let’s do this thing.” “If you are feeling low, I understand, and I don’t want to impose on you, but I miss your face. Please come have coffee with me.” “Apology accepted. ApologIES accepted. So. Gelato and Outlander?”
If you can set up a weekly or monthly routine, some sacred time when you and your friend hang out (or Skype, if you’re long distance), that can be an anchor in itself, even if you don’t talk about anything particularly deep. I don’t recommend offering or initiating constant, daily contact or becoming someone’s sole source of support or sole outlet, and I don’t recommend making your relationship all about them telling you their problems. If you are a professionally trained counselor, you shouldn’t counsel your friends. If you’re not, it does no one any good if you are like “I am here to help!” and then African Violet them two months later because their exhausting and soulsucking disease has soulsucked you, too. It is okay to have limits on how much and when and how you can be in listening mode, and to redirect friends to professional help. It’s okay to say “I am glad to know what’s going on with you, but limited in my ability to process these thoughts with you, especially when I think they are transmissions directly from your illness. Are you seeing your therapist soon/Please call a therapist/let me call one for you?” “
You are scaring me right now, That sounds very scary, and I really think you need to see someone.” Nobody likes being told they are dumping too much on their friends (and it plays into the messages that depression is telling them about how they are tedious and nobody likes them), but you get to set boundaries and then, hopefully, defeat the lies about how they are unworthy of love by still showing up in their lives.
Commander Logic is a sturdy, steady sort of person who does not really get depressed. When I am full in the middle of a spiral, her insistent cheerfulness and optimism and proposing of reasonable, achievable solutions can be downright irritating, and my Jerkbrain will try to logic her out of her pragmatic and healthy worldview and into my shitty perspective Where I Can’t Possibly Because: Reasons. She resists it, though, and when she’s had enough of listening to the Jerkbrain she dismisses it by agreeing with it. “Well, I guess everything is terrible and you just can’t. So, Doug‘s?” And then we go to lunch, as we have for 9 years or so, and we talk of other things, and I eat the sandwich of love and let it save my life. The thing is, we go to lunch when I am in a depression cycle, and we go to lunch when I am not, and we talk about my stuff AND her stuff AND mundane stuff during ALL of those times. I know that she would help me if I needed Capital H Help, and I know that she won’t leave me when my illness makes me hard to take, and I know that because she keeps showing up and she keeps inviting me in and because she talks to me like I’m Jennifer and not my illness or a project.
Time, attention, love, enjoyment > help.