Today is a weird, sad day in social medialand and also with various life stuff and brain chemistry stuff and street harassment. To be honest, I have been crying or on the verge of crying off and on for the last 20 hours with occasional breaks for sleep and a much needed breakfast and movie (a movie …that made me cry) with a friend this morning. I almost started crying in the Apple Store a little while ago when I thought I’d have to pay $80 for a new power cable, and then I really cried when it was under warranty and it was free and this big bear of a man was so nice to me and didn’t call attention to the crying and just gently handled my transaction. Crying is good, btw. It’s better than numbness, avoidance. But this question is well-timed.
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.
146 thoughts on “#613: How do I reach out to my friends who have depression?”
This is great advice, and I needed this today.
LW, I suggest another small way to help, if these friends are long-distance: offer to linkspam them with things you know they like. (Only actually go forward with this if they in fact accept the offer.) When I’m super sad, sometimes my friends in Old City pick a day and then just send me pictures of puppies all day, usually with a disclaimer at the bottom that says “No need to write back — just saying hi!” and that can be really wonderful, just to know that somebody is thinking about me in a positive way and wanted to send me a picture of a pit bull wearing a flower crown.
I have really benefited from having VERY clear interests; it means that I have a few friends who will send me a link or a picture related to things they know I love (usually this will be dog or hedgehog pictures, amazing roller derby names, or nail polish). Sometimes they do it because they know I’m in a bad place; other times it just shows they’re thinking about me. But those moments do help a lot.
This is an awesome thing! I work with animals, so I have a basically-unending supply of cute critter pictures that I send to friends that are struggling. Sometimes it’s just a one-off “I know you love birds so look at this hawk being a dork,” and sometimes it’s semi-regular animal spam (I will clear this one with the person before spamming)
I must admit I tend to do this when a friend is low – I know he likes games and movies like woah, so any opportunity to get him excited and chatting about them is always good, even if t means ou may have to pretend for a little while that you’ve not seen a movie, just so he can have the eager enjoyment if telling me all about it. It tends to be the little things that stack up I guess
Reblogged this on Working with Words and commented:
From the wonderful Captain, excellent advice on being a friend to someone who’s ill.
As a person on both sides of the depression abyss, I think it’s important to ask what you can do to help the person, and recognize that it may change from moment to moment. Sometimes I need distractions, jokes, and pictures of cute animals, but sometimes I need someone to metaphorically sit on the porch steps with me, staring out at the demons in silence. Sometimes the efforts to cheer me up come across to my jerkbrain as an attempt to switch the subject, or a hint that I’m being too much of a Negative Nancy and a burden. It can feel like I’m not being heard, and that I have to pretend to not be sad all the time.
That’s what hit me the hardest with Robin Williams’ passing. I imagine Robin Williams had a horrifyingly heavy burden…everyone expected him to be the funny guy so maybe he didn’t feel like he could talk about what was really going on. I have been there in a fraction of what he experienced: masking deep, dark emptiness with jokes and lightheartedness, fearing you’ll scare people away or be a burden if you are real for even just a moment. And it is so fucking exhausting to always pretend that everything is okay. Sometimes I need someone to just say, “I see your sadness. You don’t have to pretend right now.”
And if the person says they’re fine, or brushes off your offer, then the Captain’s advice is spot-frickin’-on.
I’ve been reading CA for a while but haven’t commented yet. I’ve had an anxiety disorder for probably 15 years now, if not my whole life, and just recently started the wonderful adventure of battling depression. I haven’t been able to put into words exactly what I needed from people, but you just did- “I see your sadness. You don’t have to pretend right now.” I feel like this can work on so many levels other that just humor. Thank you.
P.S. Love your photo& Labyrinth.
I’m sorry that you have recently been inducted into the Depression Club. Most people are well-intentioned when trying to cheer up someone who is sad, because it hurts them to see their friend sad…but sometimes it feels like glossing over something that I need to spend a little more time on, or because I don’t want to see THEM sad because I’m sad, I feel like I need to be “strong” and push everything deep down.
P.S. Thank you 🙂 Labyrinth takes me to my happy place.
I just wanted to say that I love the line “sometimes I need someone to metaphorically sit on the porch steps with me, staring out at the demons in silence.” Would you mind if I use this? I know a few people who don’t necessarily struggle with depression, but they definitely get into a place where this is the thing they need in that moment, and I think it’s a really bittersweet and poetic way of putting it.
I do not mind at all!
Captain, you are made of awesome things. As someone who struggles AND who has friends who do, this is truly invaluable. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Also, that movie? I left dehydrated. A necessary, brilliant film but holy hell (pun intended) it was hard going.
One suggestion for the LW (based on my own experience) is to avoid pathologizing people’s behavior or treating it as a symptom. So for instance, let’s say you observe a friend eating lunch alone. Eating lunch alone is a fact. Describing that behavior as “isolating himself/herself” or “being antisocial” is an interpretation, when you don’t really know what the person’s motivation is.
Overall I think the advice is correct: best to avoid any description/interpretation of what you think may be going on with the friend, and instead just be a friend.
This is a solid call, it’s patronizing to be all “I can see your depression in action because of (nonsequitur routine activity).”
LW here. One is long distance. Link spamming is perfect. https://i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/6491824896/h75A70B78/
The other has a child (single parent), which makes the invites over etc harder – but the I miss your face coffee is a good thing. Also something I’d be likely to say.
I will reread this, and enact much.
Damn there are a lot of people I’d just like to hug right now.
Ok, so here is one thing I do to stay close to friends who are new parents:
Babysit kid for a few hours so they can see a movie or run errands
When they come back, order or cook dinner
When the kid goes to bed ==> Cards Against Humanity
It’s very hard for parents, especially single parents, to make it out. So go in. But you have to be down with at least some kid time.
Nighttime CAH for parents = LOVE. BFF (who lives on the other coast) and I have started doing this regularly to stay connected – with each other, and with our younger selves.
That’s an excellent strategy. I lived right next to a friend who was a single parent, and at least once a week, when she had got the kids to bed, I would come over and we would watch cheesy action films.
I second third and nth this!
When a friend has kids, everyone says “I’ll babysit”. Very few do. I did. I’m glad about that, as I now have honorary niece and nephews I adore (who like me too). My friend was glad, as she got some kid free time.
The kids were glad too.
This has worked for most of my friends, but one of them is firmly convinced that ONLY she and her partner, and very occasionally his mom, are even the slightest bit capable of wrangling her allegedly off-the-charts sons, ages 4 and 1. This includes several of us who a)have extensive experience with kids and b)have known her her entire life. (Spoiler: Everyone else who knows her has seen very little evidence of this off-the-charts-ness, and even her partner, who of course is in the thick of it with her, admits that while kid #1 can be high-strung, kid #2 is easy-peasy.) Going to their place after the kids go to bed is likewise not an option because she’d worry too much that any noise would wake them up.
Do we just ride it out and hope that she will eventually give occasional babysitting (maybe with a two-friend tandem) a go so she can unclench her teeth and go have some relaxation time? And yes, I think there is likely some comorbid anxiety and/or depression at play here.
Some thoughts from an anxious parent:
I would take her word for it that babysitting isn’t going to work for now, whatever the reason might be. Kids act differently around different people, and it’s often hard to know the full story unless you’re the one who deals with them every day and every night. Maybe they really *are* full on. Or maybe her anxiety is the thing which is full on, and she figures that she’s not going to be able to relax anyway, so why trouble you with babysitting if she’s just going to be worrying the whole time? I don’t leave Child Badcrumble with anyone other than my partner and a few select members of my family. Not because my friends wouldn’t be awesome, capable babysitters (they would), but because I know myself and my kid better than anyone, and we’re not ready yet, for various reasons. It’s nothing personal against any friend who offered to babysit, it’s just where we’re at right now. I’m sure it will change in the future.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t help your friend relax! Find out when their best times of day are, for a start. Young kids usually cope with some times of day than others. (Mornings are often good.) And then maybe you could arrange for her to come try that new icecream place with you during her kids’ happiest time of day while her partner looks after the kids. Or spend time with her and the kids together at that time of day. During my most anxiety ridden days as a parent, after I first brought Child Badcrumble home from the hospital, I was rarely able to handle leaving her with anyone, but I loved having people come hang out with us. It didn’t stop the anxiety, but it stopped me being alone with it, which was incredibly helpful. Also hanging out with her and the kids means you could spend some time playing with them while she has a break nearby, and you can chat with them and find out their favourite games and all the stuff they’re obsessed with at the moment (kids are always obsessed with something). If you work on being someone the kids love hanging out with, rather than convincing your friend to leave them with you *right now*, then on the day when your friend IS finally ready for a babysitter, you’ll hopefully be top of her list.
Especially good point that we don’t see everything they see; I need to remember that. Thanks for this very useful perspective and suggestions! I’ve enjoyed the times when we do get to just hang out low-key at their place as you suggest and I feel like when I get the chance, I click really well with the 4-year-old. But it’s sometimes hard to make even this work because very often she says she’s too tired for company. (We also suspect that her very, very high standards for the house being clean enough for anyone to visit are not being met, because how could they be with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old in the house?) Will keep just trying to hit on whatever sticks …
LW (yet again!) – a complication, perhaps, is that I’m the opposite sex to the single parent. I may be over thinking it, but I haven’t met their child (yet), and I wonder whether they might avoid having me over in case it gives wrong impression to the child. But when they’re up, this is something we can at least chat about.
You’ve already given me a TON of things I can try (and seems like it’s helped others). I’m also going to share this page widely (perhaps without identifying myself as I don’t want other friends to be able to work out identities).
You lot are wonderful people.
As an aside – I’ve posted a bit on mental health and talking to each other on my social media, and I’ve had quite a few private messages of ‘thanks’ from unexpected directions – so just talking about stuff in a non-worried/judgemental way seems to be doing good. We should use our words so much more. It’s liberating.
I am a single parent and at my most lonely times one thing that I loved (and kept me going) was my friend who came over every week to watch my/our favourite show. We would have chocolate or icecream or I’d make dessert, and then we’d sit together and watch the show. I do a similar thing with my sister who lives on the other side of the country from me – we try to watch shows at about the same time and chat about it via text.
Several of my friends and I have regular “watch and text” evenings, whether it’s Poirot, Archer, or Sunday Night Football. It really helps when everyone is so scattered.
If your introvert friend is the parent, this can be way harder – small humans require attention, often most when the parent is exhausted and needs to recharge. Sometimes just entertaining the kid for an hour or two while your friend naps or reads in peace can make all the difference in the world for them.
YES to kid-entertaining without expectation that the parent will Accomplish Something that makes that worthwhile. When I’m most depressed/exhausted I can’t bear the idea of asking for/arranging babysitting because my brain is telling me that I will be expected to Go Out And Do Something that justifies the babysitting and even something simple-sounding like “see a movie” or “run an errand” can feel like an insurmountable chain of decisions and prerequisites. (I might have to look up a schedule of showtimes! or take a shower so I can pass among civil society!). “I would like to entertain your kid while you sit and read and do nothing” (and hopefully recharge a little) is its own special kind of gift.
We have plenty of people willing to babysit so we can go out to dinner or to the cinema. When I ask for someone to come and babysit for 2 hours so I can finally play my MMO again (I can rarely do that anymore), I mostly get frowns and the babysitters disappear, apart from my mom, who understands the need to computer and just have some quiet downtime at home.
If the kid is of an appropriate age, maybe you and your friend can have miss your face coffee (to go!) at a park, while kid plays with the other kids.
LW, I’ve had friends like you who are fabulous at reaching out to me when I’m feeling down, and here are some of the things that they do –
– They know (because I have told them) that when I am anxious or depressed, taking calls is hard, and then my message bank builds up and I feel overwhelmed. So they don’t call; they send lovely “hey beautiful, thinking of you today!” texts or long rambling emails, or short fun emails. It’s set up a precedent where I can text them if I’m having a rough day and ask for a nice little text or email back. Picking your medium well can be a huge help and asking them if they have a preference re calls / texts / emails could be a good move, especially if they have a history of not picking up or returning your calls. Suggested script: “Hey, I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ll call a couple of times and not get through to you in the end. Are calls still my best best or would you prefer it if I texted / emailed and you can reply when you’re up for it?” Sometimes when you’re in a spiral, taking a call can feel bizarrely like being put on the spot.
– Compliments – the same lovely friends take care to compliment me and I know that I can ask specifically for compliments if my brain is telling me that I am a giant jerk failure who is the worst. They give lovely soft compliments (“your hair is looking very pretty”) but they also give more biographical / “factual” compliments about my capabilities (e.g. “I admire that you started your own business”, “I think it’s great that you finished that project”, “I really love how you’ve decked out this room” etc.) Depression and other mental illnesses are great at cutting into your self-belief about your own capability, and I think complimenting someone’s competence (even over small things) can gently push back against and challenge the jerk!brain’s voice.
– They don’t make me take care of them (or at least, not very often) about my mental illness. They mostly listen to me and trust what I say about it, they trust me as the expert on my own experience. They ask me if they can ask questions (and I always say they can), they ask questions without weirdness, shame or judgment, and then the conversation naturally moves on to other things. There was one exception recently where a dear, trusted friend found out that I had had a period of suicidality, worried about it for a week, and then called me in a high state of agitation. Because she is a very logical and caring person, she had researched a bunch of options and was wanting to make sure that I was “handling things right”, because “it has been years now and you seem to be getting worse”. She was being very sweetly well-intentioned, but she was also panicking and trying to feel in control of the situation via logic, research and problem-solving, and I’ll tell her what I told you: my depression is mine to carry, not hers. I need my friends there in a supportive capacity, not a driving capacity. t’s not a problem of hers to be solved or indeed a problem where you can analyse the situation, take certain actions or decisions, and resolve it linearly like many other problems. I’ve been dealing with this for years, in very subtle and quiet ways. Paradoxically, now that I am handling it so much better my friends hear more about it than they used to (because I’m not ashamed of being depressed and I’ll actually tell people that I’m having a rough day or seeing my therapist) and just based on that greater amount of info they assume things are inherently getting worse.
– They offer specific help – this does require a basic amount of knowledge of where your friend is at in their life and what they are dealing with. E.g. I’ve been looking at going back to uni (I dropped out in large part due to depression) and the bureaucracy and admin was a huge barrier to my sitting down, figuring out my options, and getting the application process rolling. My housemate offered to sit down with me and go through the uni website, figure out what I had already done, and what was left to do, and the best way to apply. Just sitting down with someone, without shame, was invaluably helpful, plus I figured out an unexpected way to get credit and recognition for work I’d done, just based on describing it to someone new. A way to NOT do this is to jump in and do something anyway without asking if the help is needed or appreciated e.g. I’ve been job-hunting for the last six weeks, whilst still working full-time elsewhere, and have had two positive responses out of many applications. My other housemate tried to call me twice while she and I were at work and then sent an email, saying that she knew I’d been unsuccessful and that she’d called a bunch of temp agencies pretending to be me, and I was to email my resume to the recruiters she had contacted. She meant well, but it felt very high-handed and like she thought I wasn’t doing a good job of running my own life, even though a six-week job-hunting period is absolutely typical (I work in careers advice so I do actually know a bit about this stuff!). Don’t try to take over.
– They offer help aligned to their skills – my researcher friend offered to research options for me. My housemate with a similar background of depression, I can go to if I’m having a bad day and need to talk about the specifics. My friend who’s really into exercise, I join on walks when I am feeling unmotivated – but I know that exercise is good for mental health etc. Try not to over-commit yourself with help that will cost you a lot or be unsustainable; be honest and sensitive if you do need to back it off for a while for your own wellbeing / based on your own preference for any reason. When I was younger I had friends with mental illnesses that were undiagnosed or untreated and I wanted to Fix All The Things and I burnt myself out and faded out on them. Don’t do that!
– Go to them if you can. If you’re trying to meet up and you can afford and are willing to do that little bit of extra travel to make the meet-up in their neighbourhood, then that can be the thing that determines whether they can come. E.g I have friends who live an hour away and sometimes the energy required to travel to see them will mean that I say no (or the fear of having a panic attack on the train etc). But those same friends will send me a text when they are in my neighbourhood, or will volunteer to come to hang out in my area, and it makes the hanging-out thing far likelier. I totally get that this is hugely dependent on a bunch of variables and it does not make you a bad friend or selfish or any other thing if going to see your friend isn’t possible; but if it is possible it might be a big help.
Hope these rambling blocks of text and ideas help! You are lovely and sweet for asking and I wish you and your friends the best. 🙂
LW, thank you for asking this. Captain thank you for answering and for being so honest. I am generally the not-depressed one but I have people I care deeply for that struggle with depression. This helps so so much with how I can respect them and be there for them.
I think this is excellent advice not just for depression, but for any chronic illness. My good friend was recently diagnosed with MS. I’m going to be taking this advice to heart 🙂
“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.”
YES. In fact, when I am struggling, I would rather have a friend set those limits clearly, to say, “Today I can be your diverting fun things friend, not your confidante.” Because it stinks to inadvertently burn out a friend, and one of the things depression does is to replace social skills with brain weasel droppings. It’s easier to ask a person for help if they know and respect their own limits.
I hate to be the person picking on one little thing in a post that’s addressing a broader issue (and as always, doing a great job with it), but I’ve been hearing some of my friends who struggle with depression and suicidal ideation talking today about how they’re having trouble with all the “he’s in a better place now” language that often surrounds a suicide, and the “Genie, you’re free” picture you linked to there is a big part of that for them. Obviously it’s really moving and meaningful for some people, but also really difficult for people who are trying NOT to think of death as a way out — so it might be better to link to something different as a one-image summary of the discussion. Or at least give a bit more warning of what’s being linked to so those who need to can avoid it.
Perfectly salient point, and I’ll remove the link wholesale because I hate that stuff, too. (I was not reading it quite that way).
Thank you, this is lovely 🙂
I have a friend who asked me to promise her that I would call her before I killed myself. I didn’t make the promise–she was sort of a new friend and I didn’t know her that well and it seemed like way more than I was able to commit to, but we’d had a frank conversation about depression and she knew I’m bi-polar. The last time I was seriously suicidal I remembered that she’d asked, and I did call her. It felt stupid when I did it–I wasn’t in a place where I thought talking would help at all–but she’d been so specific. None of that generic, “I’m always here for you” (which is never really true, “always” is impossible for anyone, people have lives of their own), just the absolutely specific “if you’re considering killing yourself, please call me first.” Anyway, I’m not sure I even told her more than that it was a dark day and I wasn’t in a good space, and she said, “okay, I’m coming to get you.” She drove forty-five minutes, picked me up at my house, took me back to her house, and we decorated Easter eggs with her kids. I spent the night sleeping in a kid’s bedroom and feeling safe and in the morning I went home. We barely talked about how I was feeling. She didn’t push for me to answer questions, she didn’t expect anything from me, she didn’t need me to be or to say or to do anything–she just took me literally out of my dark place and got me through the night. I don’t know if it would work for everyone. But I’ve made her that promise now. When I was walking my dogs and crying about Robin Williams tonight, I wondered if he’d broken any similar promises and whether I would, too, one day. He must have been in such tremendous pain.
What a wonderful friend! Thank you for sharing that story.
She was. Is. It’s weird, because I still don’t have the… well, she’s still sort of a stranger to me. But I do think she saved my life. In a very concrete and businesslike sort of way. It’s like she’s “oh, you’re going to jump off a bridge? well, I will rip you away from the bridge” and then I–as the person ready to die–am left wondering, hmm, how do I do this away from the bridge?” But I’m glad to be away from the bridge, definitely.
Wow, that is amazing. Your friend’s request and her follow-through is the perfect way to help a friend with depression.
It was definitely the perfect way to help me at that moment. And I haven’t had a moment since then where the memory of decorating Easter eggs with kids wasn’t helpful so maybe even beyond that moment. Crayons are a potent weapon against despair, I think.
That is beautiful. I’m so glad you have such a friend.
Thank you. I am glad, too. And surprised? She sort of came out of nowhere in my life. If you’re depressed, I wish for you the same sort of friend. If you’re not depressed, then know that a surprisingly minimal number of hours in your life can make a difference for someone else. B knew me for no more than six hours before she said she wanted to know if I was going to kill myself and no more than twenty before she might have saved my life.
Wow, that’s actually an incredible story. I’m going to try to be specific like that in the future.
It helped me a lot, so yeah, I think it’s a good thing!
This made my cry. Thanks for sharing.
I immediately reflected that this might read snarky, but I don’t mean it that way. I really do appreciate that you shared. The tears are from happiness that such people exist.
I didn’t read it as snarky at all. For me, that moment–well, I have friends. I’m not alone. People love me. But people who love me who I can be honest with? Those are harder to come by. My closest friend (who rocks and is awesome and is the best friend anyone could ever have) is of the “you’re scaring me, I don’t know what to do” camp. I understand that she loves me and that I also terrify her sometimes. I’m even sympathetic to that–hell, I terrify me sometimes. But I’m really grateful that at rock bottom I had met someone whose terror was heavily tempered with “I know that,” and who had asked me to call.
I think this is great advice, especially from a perspective of not-being-someone’s-therapist. However I am seeing a major weak point which is as applied to people who can’t or won’t access a therapist and don’t have that as a dedicated forum to discuss/deal with their thoughts/ideas/depression/life events. I am at a bit of a loss as to how one would redirect from a case, as above, of “I’m sorry I have limited abilities to process what you’re telling me” to “more helpful/appropriate action” if “therapist” is not an option.
Also, and this may be only my personal bias/experiences, so take it as you will, I really dislike any iteration of “you’re scaring me” (with the exception of if someone is actually threatening the speaker’s well-being) – in part because in the past I have had people use that when I am expressing perfectly reasonable emotions, like being afraid and angry that I am afraid on public transit at night, and in part because in my experience it really shuts down any discussion of emotions whole-sale. Like, I’ve always felt that it means I have to go back to pretending to be fine and happy and put on a good face because mentioning a negative emotion (or even, like, certain thoughts or ideas – like if I was to mention I was considering getting a skull tattoo they would find that weird and morbid and I would be scaring them) might scare the person again and it’s my job not to do that.
I don’t know if anyone else feels the same way about that particular phrasing. It might just be that it’s relatively imprecise and I’ve experienced it used in odd ways in my own life. I’m certainly not trying to say friends or associates of persons dealing with depression shouldn’t create and maintain boundaries as to what they’re willing/able to discuss but I would find “I’m concerned” or the above redirect equally effective, without the weird connotations.
I really dislike any iteration of “you’re scaring me” (with the exception of if someone is actually threatening the speaker’s well-being)
Agreed. I think “that sounds really scary” is okay when someone is telling you about their emotional state or thought patterns, because it shows you are listening and considering how you would feel in their place. But “you’re scaring me” makes it all about your feelings, and seems to indicate a wish that they would either magically get better, or stop talking about what’s going on. Neither of which are helpful.
If you honestly can’t cope with a serious discussion about mental illness at any given point in time, it’s okay to say so, as long as you own the feeling and don’t put the burden on someone else. Maybe something like:
“I’m a bit fragile right now. Can we talk about something else for a bit?”
At the same time, letting them know you are up for other kinds of hanging out and other kinds of discussions is important. Like: “Did you see [show] last night?”
Good comment. Couldn’t put my finger on what exactly bothered me or what would be better to say -this is it.
Thank you, you’ve said what I was trying to say, but much clearer. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way about this phrasing!
Yes, I actually wanted to comment in just that! I think because “you’re scaring me” makes no distinction where the fear is coming from — whether you are scared FOR me or OF me. The first can be a compassionate thing — “the thing you are telling me about is big and scary and I am scared for your well-being” — whereas the second interpretation would be and has been (in my experience) a friendship-ender. This phrase sounds like you think the person has become something monstrous, not that they are fighting something monstrous. It’s dehumanizing.
You are both right on about this, thank you. Maybe “That sounds scary?”
As far as not having a therapist, would a helpline be a possible option? In the UK we have The Samaritans who I totally love after they’ve got me through several difficult times. It’s not going to solve anything fundamental but they give you a non-judgmental space to talk.
There is an online chat with a therapist option also, for those with internet access. I can’t speak to its quality because I’ve never used it myself, but I have a friend who uses it (I believe in addition to in-person help, but she hasn’t openly addressed it with me and I tend to follow her lead).
Have a friend who volunteers for one such, have used it in the past. They’re pretty alright; certainly a very good option when “picking up the phone” is just too scary/BRAINREASONS why I can’t.
There is a local version of the text-based crisis line here. I’ve actually found that more helpful for me personally than the phone, because it disrupts some of my personal shame-cycle around the having of needs and messy feelings and showing emotions*.
Waiting for the next message to post is a little bit like enduring a commercial in which Tina and Gretchen jump onscreen to aggressively sell you more misery, but then the post flashes onscreen and proves them wrong. And you can screenshot things you want to remember.
Your mileage may vary, but it has been A Good Thing for me.
* all things I was explicitly trained in childhood to Never Ever Do. Thanks, assorted parental units and Adults With Power, that was totally for my own good, just like you said. Except, Not.
Helplines are great for crisis scenarios, but I don’t know what to do for friends who would benefit from therapy or support groups but can’t afford it or have other objections. For example, a friend of mine has several chronic mental health issues and had a seriously bad experience with a therapist in the past so she isn’t interested in counseling at the moment. She also stopped going to her 12 step groups. That’s her prerogative of course and I have no right to tell her how to manage her health but I don’t know what to say at those times when I would otherwise say, “That sounds really tough. Would your sponsor or therapist be able to give you advice about that?” There are some dilemmas that are way beyond my skill set and need more than a hug and some empathy. For example, if she is worried about the increasing frequency of her panic attacks or compulsive behaviors, I don’t know how to help with that. I can hang out with her and be her friend, but if the topic of conversation is specifically, “I feel really bad because I got drunk instead of going to work,” all I really have to offer is hugs.
I guess it’s part of a larger question I have about how to set boundaries with people who have brainweasels and jerkbrains. I don’t want to trigger someone who is doing as well as they can given the spoons at their disposal, but I also need to conserve my limited spoons. If my friend shows up three hours late for dinner, I don’t know how to talk to her about respecting my time without triggering her jerkbrain. It’s impossible to tell from the outside how many spoons someone has or how hard they’re trying, so I never know when it’s appropriate to push or to ask for things, and I don’t know when it’s appropriate to say, “You need to get medical care.”
Maybe if you can’t say “Have you considered talking to _____ or trying therapy again?” could you instead just talk about how you’re worried or unsure about how to help since you don’t feel qualified? And/or then offer what you can, which is still good. Sometimes in situations like this where I know the person doesn’t want/can’t go to therapy I just active listen for awhile and ask them, “what do you think you’ll do next?” Even if I can’t solve anything or improve anything, I hope that person will still at least feel like someone heard and understood them.
A lot of times there is nothing to be done and you have to respect that. But for a certain subset of people who are ambivalent, more information can be helpful. I work at a crisis hotline. We never, ever push therapy, but if someone seems open to hearing more, I will tell more. I emphasize that there are many options (drugs, rogerian therapy, CBT, religious counseling… exact set depends on what I know of them already) and tell them more about them. If they ask questions I focus on answering them, but sometimes they’re unsure and a quick rundown of what the options mean, what problems they tend to work for, and maybe the first step is really calming and empowering. i also emphasize that no decision is irrevocable, they can asses and change their plans along the way. Sometimes they need information so they can judge when to make that assessment (e.g. “it is very normal for anti-depressants to take 6 weeks to work, and there are many people for whom the first anti-depressant they try doesn’t work but a subsequent one is very helpful.”)
This does not work if your attitude is “You have to do SOMETHING pick one NOW,” or for people who are dead set against therapy. But for people who think therapy (or medical treatment) *might* have some value some day but also see a lot of negatives, or aren’t ready for it, this can help ease their path to it.
Yes, I agree with you. Any mention of “you’re scaring/worrying/upsetting me” fills me with guilt and shame and makes me not want to continue seeking help from that person because I don’t want to add to their burdens already, it makes me want to hide my feelings and change my behaviour around them so that they are not scared etc. Some of it is that, some of it is also, if this person is scared/worried/etc then I may become too much for them to deal with and they will no longer be there for support or connection, and I’d rather have some connection over none so I stop.
I understand it’s not helpful to me and probably is just making things worse, but it’s the reality for me and my illness and a way it works, and it’s not uncommon for people with this horrible bullshit form of illness to feel like they’re burdening people.
I have often said that one of the best gifts you can give someone is to truly enjoy them. I never thought about it in the context of depression before this but this is spot-on.
Also, with the boundaries. I think yes, at first, it would sting to be told, “I just can’t listen to this right now.” But in the long run, having friends who have strong boundaries removes so much burden. I have someone in my life who has very strong boundaries, and there’s a huge freedom in knowing that I can be whoever I am in any given moment, without worrying if I’m a burden or a downer or if he’s starting to resent me, because I have absolute trust that he will take care of himself before it damages our relationship. While I still of course try to be kind and respectful, I know without doubt that I’m not responsible for his feelings, and that feels really good.
Agreed. Speaking from experience, it is much easier to hear “I can’t listen to this right now” than to later find out “I stopped hanging out with you because your issues were too much for me.”
“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…”
The latest Hyperbole and a Half, on depression, was really illuminating for me on why I, and other people with depression, do this. It’s often framed as being oppositional on the depressed person’s part. I think it’s more about wanting to feel heard and understood. The fish are dead, at least today. Just understand/accept that and stop trying to convince me they’re sleeping or tired – even if that is “objectively” true. Kind of like how little kids having a screaming fit will sometimes calm down as soon as you just repeat calmly after them that, yes, that probably does hurt very much, and yes, it is very unfair – they just want to be heard and affirmed, more than needing some kind of action or logical response.
Or another way to put it would be the old improv standby, “Yes, and.” “Yes, you are depressed and things are hopeless, AND let’s go get dinner.” As opposed to, “You feel depressed and like things are hopeless BUT [some rational argument why you or things aren’t really so bad.]”
And I think this gets gendered sometimes, too, because women are so often stereotyped as “illogical” and not actually wanting to fix their problems, so if you’re a woman (or perceived as one) you might get the internalized crap of “I just want to whine, I don’t want my problems fixed because I’m not at all convinced they can be, and that means I’m being as bad as They Say women are.” And for extra-special fun, throw in a problem that really is based on sexist crap from specific people or from Society In General, and being perceived as a) whining about b) something that “isn’t, like, an actual problem” anyway.
…or maybe that’s just me on a bad day.
…Not just you.
If anyone disagrees with me about these things when I am depressed I will just dig my heels right in and it does no one any good. I cannot be reasoned out of this state in the way that most people reason. Probing questions can work a bit though, but to be honest I would leave that to someone with relevant training.
Yes, this exactly.
One of the things that my husband does when I am depressed that I hate is constantly demanding to know whats wrong and insist I talk about it. I know he means well but usually I don’t want to talk about it because I know that all he’s going to do is to try to logic me out of my depression or offer suggestions for how to fix things. I don’t need him to fix it. I know why I’m depressed and what I can do to make it better, I just can’t always do those things. Right now, the main reasons are 1) getting laid off from my job for the second time this year, 2) not being able to go out and get a new job because I’m pregnant, and 3) having to stop taking my anti-depressant because of the pregnancy. I know what would help, but it’s not like my husband can give me a job or carry the baby for me so I can take my anti-depressant, so I’d really rather not talk about it, thank you very much.
Insisting that I talk about things is just rubbing the depression in my face. Like all I am is my depression. It makes me feel like I’m failing as a wife because the depression is just this huge thing that he can’t get past, so clearly I’m not doing a good enough job hiding it/dealing with it/working around it.
So the affirming thing would help a lot because we can then acknowledge that yes, I am depressed and go on with our evening.
I feel that he doesn’t get the difference between “I am sad about this thing.”, which people occasionally like to talk about and usually get a sense of relieve after grieving and “I am depressed because of this.”, which isn’t as straightfoward, emotionally speaking. Like, you are not “sad”, you are in a totally different state which therefore needs different ways of handling it. I hope you find a way to tell him. (Also having to go off anti-depressants, that’s really harsh. I mean, the other stuff too.)
…what happens if you know you have a friend that needs help and support (don’t know if ze is depressed, but it’s…probable) but you Do Not Have The Spoons. You want to be there, but it’s just far too overwhelming when you are struggling with your own demons but your inability to be there is ruining your friendship.
I cannot offer to be there if they ever need me and I can’t offer anything constructive because I can barely keep myself together. Even reaching out to this friend just to express general friendship is long overdue and freaking terrifying at this point. On the surface my life is far more stable, but we all know that doesn’t matter with depression. But it’s impossible for me to handle this situation and the longer I try to ignore the worse it blows up every time.
I think I understand what you’re saying, I have a few friends that reaching out to express general friendship is also long over due, but I’ve found that the best thing I can say, and the best thing I’ve had said to me in this situation is some variation.
“I love you, I’m sorry I cannot be there for you more than this right now, I am struggling too. Life is hard, but I am thinking about you and care about you”.
You would be surprised at how good it can feel, and how heartwarming it is to know that someone is thinking of you, even if they can’t do anything, you’re important to them.
That’s really hard. Do they know about your issues? And are they familiar with spoon theory, where they’d understand “I don’t have the spoons to talk about X—can we watch a silly movie instead?”
The suggestion further upthread about sending them fun links or pictures might be a good, low-impact way to maintain contact. Maybe that would be easier than a general “hi, how are you” email that can easily turn into “sorry I haven’t been in touch” and dredge up all the guilt and anxiety surrounding that.
The cliche is “put on your own oxygen mask first” – but it’s true. Your friend needs the help that people *can* offer, without draining or hurting themselves. If you’re not in a position to offer that right now, it’s OK.
It isn’t “your inability to be there” that is ruining the friendship – it’s the unfortunately combination that you’re both having problems and difficult times right now, and you can’t be there for each other. Same as if you both broke your legs at the same time and couldn’t drive to see each other: it’s a sad thing, but neither of you are to blame or failing.
One thing someone in your situation might be able to do is write to the friend and just explain what’s going on: “I’m sorry, I recognise that you’re struggling and need me, and I wish I could offer more help but I’m barely keeping myself together right now. Given my track record, I’m hoping that I’ll start to feel better soon, and I’ll be in touch then. All the best.” When your friend is feeling better, they might appreciate that you at least let them know where you were. But it’s OK if even that is too much for you right now.
It might be that the friendship doesn’t survive: sometimes friendships don’t survive mental ill-health on one or both person’s part. Try and forgive yourself for that, though. It’s sad, but like anything else to do with mental ill-health, it’s not you failing and more than it’s your friend failing. Looking after yourself and giving yourself permission to attend to your own needs until you’re stable again is the best thing you can do for yourself and for others.
best of luck.
Sometimes, the answer is as simple as “other friends”. My best friend went through a very long spell of depression, and because we don’t live anywhere near each other, there was little I could do for him except ring him up once a week and remind him that he was lovely. (I would absolutely have spammed his FB page with cute animals, because he loves those, but one effect of the depression was that he wasn’t coping well with FB.) So I got hold of a mutual friend and said to him, “Listen, I don’t know if you realise this, but X is very depressed at the moment and could do with someone more local than I am to invite him to do happy things. Could you help, please?”
The mutual friend, Y, hadn’t known that X was depressed, and once he had that information he acted on it. He invited X to cricket matches and took him off to the pub afterwards (they’re both big cricket fans). Little by little, X pulled through his depression, and he and Y became much closer friends because of it.
So, do what you can, even if it’s only a tiny thing, and don’t be afraid to ask if other people can do a bit more. They may be surprisingly helpful once they understand what is going on.
“Time, attention, love, enjoyment > help.”
This is so on point. Six and a half year ago, when I lost my brother, I wound up sitting alone in the cafeteria for the rest of the year because of mostly-unrelated social circumstances. The problem with this was, sitting alone like this attracted a group of what I call “social charity workers”: people who deliberately seek out and “befriend” lonely individuals, not because they’re interested in being friends with those individuals, but because they’ve accepted Rachel’s Challenge or something like that and they want to be good people. And that’s commendable! I am all for people trying to be good people. But these social interactions were exhausting and unfulfilling for me, and kept me from doing things I would rather have been doing than trying to justify my solitude to a group of strangers, like writing in my journal or practicing my saxophone. I knew I was a pity case and it made me uncomfortable.
If, instead, they had invited me to sit with them and then just gone about their normal lunchtime activities, including me without making me the Focus Of Everything, that probably would have gone a lot better. See, I didn’t need a charity organization; I needed friends and reliable, low-pressure companionship. If I couldn’t have that, I needed my art. (Preferably, I needed both.)
Nowadays, I’m doing better than I was then, but I was depressed and socially anxious before my brother died and I’m still depressed and socially anxious today. I have seriously improved soooo much, but it still lights up my life in a way that I really need when people deliberately reach out to spend time with me. I’m trying to get better about reaching back, but I have a limited capacity to do that. It really helps when someone else takes the first step.
“The problem with this was, sitting alone like this attracted a group of what I call “social charity workers”: people who deliberately seek out and “befriend” lonely individuals, not because they’re interested in being friends with those individuals, but because they’ve accepted Rachel’s Challenge or something like that and they want to be good people. ”
SOCIAL CHARITY WORKERS. That is the perfect name for it. Oh, how I hate them.
Ugh, social charity workers.
Ugh, indeed. I knew one who dispensed his “charity” by seeking out lonely women to try to date. He approached them in the classic Nice Guy (TM) way, and the closer he got to them emotionally, the more paternalistic and entitled he became. When they tried to distance themselves from him, he would come complain bitterly to me about how “crazy” and “ungrateful” they were.
When I ended the friendship, he used the same tactic on me, sending me pages-long FEELINGS!mails about how I was just another crazy she-devil.
Wow, that’s just… whoa. Imagine the sheer arrogance involved in thinking he’s doing these women a favor by gracing them with his attention. Gross. I think I’d rather be alone forever than deal with a guy like him.
I dunno, I can’t really hate people who so clearly *want* to make things better, even if they are super clueless and unhelpful about it. Half my problem with the world at large is the number of people in it who don’t even seem to want to try to be good people. They baffle and upset me. At least social charity workers are trying. It’s not their fault that whoever put this idea of “helping” the lonely into their heads had a really flawed idea of how to do it.
But they’re still responsible for what they do, and if what they do hurts people (which, examples above), they are indeed doing something wrong, which they should stop.
Well yeah, sure. I don’t disagree with that. But the main problem these people have is misinformation: this is how they’ve been taught by other misinformed people to make the world a better place, so this is what they’re doing. I’ve been misinformed too many times myself to hold that against them, particularly given that (in my case) they were high school students. Nobody has a clue what they’re doing in high school. What we need is to spread information like this letter response to let people know what does and doesn’t help when someone you know is depressed.
This is so timely for me because I have a friend I’ve been worried about who is depressed. I’ve also struggled with depression, but I’ve been steadily going through an up for a while, with my steps forward being greater than my steps back so far. (I also have a good support system right now.) I’ve been worried about her and this advice seems great because she doesn’t want to unload on me about what she’s stressing about and the last thing I wanna do is PRESSURE her, y’know? (Like, for example, I can’t force her to go to therapy if the idea of going to a therapist scares her.) So this is great. We’ve actually been gaming online together a little bit lately and I think I’ll try to keep doing this since we now both have headsets to communicate on.
A really nice question to see asked, and as usual a great response from the Captain. But like every blog commenter (especially new ones, hi everyone, nice to meet you), I have a couple of points to add.
1) Don’t assume that every depressed person will exhibit the same symptoms. One person might sleep all the time and cry a lot. Another might not seem different in casual conversation, but is checked out of everything they do and gets angry over minor things. Another might be impossible to please and respond to everything with snark. I could go on. Unless you already know what someone’s like when they’re depressed, you might not see it coming. And if someone tells you they’re depressed, don’t make the mistake of thinking they can’t be that depressed because they never cry.
2) Understand and accept that you’re going to have to do the heavy lifting in the friendship for a while. I’d be hard pressed to find a person living with depression who hasn’t at some point lost a friendship over a perceived inequality of effort. It seems like some people can’t or won’t understand that their friend isn’t taking them for granted, sometimes it really is that hard to “just” pick up the phone and make plans.
Well hey thank you for giving me something to bookmark so when people ask me how they can help me while I’m in a depression, I can send thim this. ❤
FYI this is about talking to people about their suicidal thoughts, in case anyone wants to skip past it…
Just to add to this for non-depressed people who may be worried about talking about/asking about suicidal thoughts their depressed friends or family may having – in my professional context, I have always been taught that you won’t do any harm by having this conversation. (I am not a mental health professional, but it’s often my job to recognise that people having a problem and get them to mental health professionals at times when that’s what they need). You don’t need to be concerned that a conversation about suicide might somehow make that person more likely to actually commit suicide. Of course, if you’re going to freak out if the friend/family member you’re talking to says that yes, they do have those thoughts, then that will be unhelpful. Nor is hassling them constantly (“Are you suicidal? Are you sure? How about now?”) helpful or wise. But, if at a suitable moment you can talk calmly and listen properly, you may be able to help them, first by giving them an outlet for thoughts that may be incredibly intrusive and distressing for them, and secondly by helping them to access help if they are in fact in need of it. (I would consider a person particularly in need of help if they have a clear plan for how they would go about taking their own life, and have access to the necessary means to carry out that plan, and feel that it’s something they would actually do rather than just a thought they don’t ever intend to act on – but all suicidal thoughts are significant).
I think this is great advice, thanks.
Yes, I did Samaritans training years ago, and one of the things we were supposed to ask every call was, “And are you having suicidal thoughts?” and if they said yes, to ask gently whether they had a plan and just generally explore it a bit. We all found that incredibly intimidating in the training, and quite a lot of us argued with it and said that we thought it was a really intimidating question and that nobody would say yes. The very experienced Samaritans said, “Try it.”
And I think I literally never asked it without hearing the person on the other end sigh with relief. They didn’t always say yes, straight out – sometimes it was things like, “I – not exactly suicidal thoughts, I suppose, just, thinking that it would be easier if everything just stopped”. Sometimes it was suicidal ideation with no intention to act, and sometimes it was an actual plan, and onlyoccasionally was it a plan and intent to act. But it was nearly always a relief to be asked and to have that conversation out loud, with someone who was *not freaked out* by it and could listen calmly and maybe make them feel like having suicidal thoughts was in the “spectrum of things human people do” rather than “I am totally broken and maybe I’m the only person who has ever felt this way” or whatever it might have been.
(That is not to say that it’s not OK to be freaked out if a friend or a relative or someone tells that they are considering suicide – it is totally OK to be freaked out, and that was the point of us being trained, supported and anonymous volunteers. If you can remember that there is a big spectrum of “suicidal thoughts” and not all of them include “intent to harm yourself” and gently explore that with someone, it can be a good thing to do. But it is not a responsibility and you get to decide if that’s too much for you.)
One of the nicest things my doctor ever did for me was to talk to me about suicide. I was pretty sick, and I think she knew I was probably suicidal. She didn’t ask me if I was suicidal. Instead she told me she knew that what was happening to me was really painful, and really hard, and that a lot of people would be struggling to see a future. And then she said she would do all she could to help me get to a future, and that I had lots of options.
Another doctor that I did confess suicidal thoughts to said he’d be really sad to hear I’d died, because he knew we had lots of options left for treatment.
Please, please consider if you can have this conversation with someone with depression. I can’t tell you how much it helped to have people talk to me about suicide without being as terrified of it as I was.
I have a long distance friend who is struggling a fair bit at the moment. He sometimes struggles with being alone and i can’t just ‘pop’ 2.5 hours to go see him so we get on this app called Line (its like skype) and we voice call, then we pick a movie on Netflix and watch it together. That way he can talk if he wants, but also has a legitimate reason not to talk (the movie). It also means that when he has his kids visiting, we can pause the movie if one of them wakes up and he can see to them and come back. There is no need for babysitters or whatever, but he still gets to watch a movie with a friend.
This is the sweetest thing!
I’d very much back the “having a routine” idea. I’ve been on both sides of depression, and pretty seriously – as in, “if I’d owned a gun and not just a bottle of Tylenol a few years ago I’d be dead right now” levels of depression. I also have a weekly activity (Dagorhir) that I got into through a friend, and it helps immensely. Just asking if someone wants to do a particular thing on a particular day is helpful, particularly if it can transition to a particular thing on a particular day of the week/month/whatever.
I don’t have much to add beyond “tiny squee for foam fighting!” Having a community of like-minded geeks and a weekly chance to hit thing with sticks has helped me so much over the years.
This is a wonderful post. I love the way you describe your lunches with Commander Logic and what you get out of them, how that contact with her helps you because it’s low-key and not necessarily you-centered all the time. I’ve been struggling lately with similar situations where dear friends are having troubles and isolating themselves, and I want to be supportive and helpful and such without being intrusive or seeming worried, and this post was just perfectly timed.
Also, I’m a longtime lurker on your blog, and while I know that I have only the foggiest notion of who you are IRL, I just have to say that you seem like a really special and awesome person, and I’ve been so impressed by your capacity for kindness and compassion and thoughtful love. I’m so sorry that you’re having a hard time, and I’m so glad that you have some good people in your life who are around to keep you company when you feel urpy. Wishing you well. :-*
The captain´s reply is spot-on. LW, you say you’re feeling like your question is self-centered — channel that! Done properly, that is actually incredibly reassuring. I at least find that it’s much harder to convince depression-brain that someone is just feeling sorry for me or that I’m taking advantage of their friendship if they’re telling me that they want to hang out because they enjoy doing X with me and haven’t seen me in a while and wouldn’t that be fun. Really clever brain-weasels will still be convinced that they’re only doing it out of charity, but what can you do.
If you re feeling depressed as well or going through a rough patch in general, don’t underestimate the power of just hanging out and being depressed in the same place. Trying to actually work through feelings when you’re both in a bad place can just make them worse unless done really carefully, but I’ve had several friends where we’ve very successfully been able to go “ok, you’re sad. I’m sad. We’re going to sit on one of our couches and watch Dr. Who and knit now.” And there’s no need to pretend that you aren’t sad, or be a “good” host/guest and provide sparkling conversation, but there’s also no particular need to talk about it, just low-key hanging out and having a comforting other human presence there.
When I have had mental health problems I think the thing I appreciate most from my friends are them making an effort to stay in touch regularly. It made it so much easier for me to contact them when I needed to if I was hearing from them regularly, which meant that enough of my brain remembered that they liked me and cared about me, so when I felt desperate I would reach out.. I found little and often was really helpful, I really needed to hear from each person at least every other day to override the jerkbrain, but a short text, facebook message or email was enough.
I also absolutely second the Captain’s advice of keeping social engagements as easy to manage as possible and be prepared to do most of the work. Offering to come round and cook is good. I know that eating well, especially eating veg, helps me tackle my low moods and unhelpful thought patterns, but when I’m in a hole I have so little energy that this is really difficult.
Other things that can be helpful include offering to go to doctor’s appointments with your friend (you could stay in the waiting room but once I had my dad come in with me as I was really fragile and he was there to make sure I got the referral I needed – we discussed it all beforehand though and I don’t think that my dad actually said anything in the end). This is a delicate area though. I also value phone calls or meet-ups after therapy appointments, partly because if I talk about what has just happened it helps me to digest the info and make more use of it, but again this is really personal and I expect people will differ a lot on this (whether they want it at all and what kind of chat they want to have).
Also please remember to look after yourself and make sure that you have a Team You or support network that you can draw on. If you’re not in touch with any of the rest your friend’s support network, maybe you could ask your friend if they could put you in touch? Then you can co-ordinate so that no one gets burned out?
A word on suicidal feelings, sometimes I have felt suicidal but I’ve known that it isn’t a course of action I want to take. In those times I really really need to talk to someone about it. Often I phone The Samaritans (http://www.samaritans.org/), sometimes I phone a friend. I recommend getting details of helplines together so that if your friend phones to talk about feelings which you can’t handle right now, you can refer them on, although I’m afraid I’m not sure how best to phrase that. Unfortunately those times when I’ve acted on suicidal thoughts it hasn’t even crossed my mind to talk to someone. This doesn’t mean that if I reach out people don’t need to take me seriously, because I am still in distress and I still need help (I really wish that “a call for help” didn’t have such negative connotations).
Your posts are always great, Captain, but this one is extra extra good. Thank you for doing what you do. I really appreciate it.
There are things I know, and things I don’t.
I know that the Captain is an amazing friend.
I don’t always know when she’s depressed.
I know I get on the nerves of my friends who are depressed.
Because I don’t know what it’s like. At all. Like, I /understand/ but I do not grok.
I do my best. I love my friends. I care for them when I can, which is not always when they need it. I guess sometimes it’s like I’m handing out mittens in July, hoping they’ll be able to be found in January. Then again, sometimes it’s January and I just didn’t know it.
I’m absolutely not saying you’re a narcissist, here, but I DO think this comic might maybe be something like what you’re talking about here?
Reblogged this on Empathic Philosophy Engineer and commented:
Asking for help when depressed is not like asking for help with a broken arm. There’s a great deal of shame, embarrassment, and worry (that one is being a burden or presenting oneself as pathetic).
Commander Logic, man. She is a welcoming harbor in a storm.
Just wanted to tell Captain & community that this post inspired me to contact my long-distance best friend, tell her about my dad’s death, and ask her to send me distractions. Every day that passed was making that email seem harder and more awkward. So thanks.
Thanks for this post, it was very helpful to me! My husband struggles with depression, it kind of comes in waves and with the seasons (summer is worst). I’m often not sure how to help or what I can do, but this is making me realize that the kind of “help” he prefers from he is my love, my absurd sense of humor, when I do small things for him (like pick up his favorite candy at the store), etc. It’s these concrete actions of care and just enjoying spending time with him that I think help him more than anything.
You might want to look at depression comix ( http://www.depressioncomix.com) for (what feels to me like) an accurate depiction of depression from the inside
Some of these hit pretty close to home. 173/174 especially hit a note that I don’t often see in any discussion of mental illness.
Yes. Clay does a very good job of capturing how depression is experienced. I’ve rarely (if ever) come across so nuanced a take.
Thanks for sharing that, I hadn’t seen it before. Definitely too heavy to archive binge, but a good thing to remember when trying to explain depression to people who don’t grok it.
One important thing is to never, ever, EVER say or imply anything that makes it clear that no matter what your good intentions may be, you really don’t “get it” and never will. I have been friends with people who casually let it slip that they don’t really believe in depression/MI, that they think suicide is selfish, that they think certain things are “just excuses,” and once that happens, I may continue to hang out with the person but I will not ever open up my emotions to them again. I will be only a “good times” friend, not a deep friend, and we eventually drift apart as surface-level acquaintances tend to do. (I don’t educate.) Not all or even many people are as vindictive as me, and some people will educate/call out, but it’s something to keep in mind. Although if you’re asking this question then you probably do believe depression exists and that your friend has it.
After that, it really depends on the person. Some people want to talk about feelings. Some people want to talk about things other than feelings. Personally, what I usually want is for someone to get me out of the house, but not have to feel obligated to talk to them. Like “hey, let’s go read in a park.” Or “let’s go for a walk.” And then let them take over the reins of conversation, or not, as the case may be. Because sometimes I don’t really want to talk to someone but I want to do something with them, if that makes sense? I wouldn’t “request” this because I know most people would find it boring or high-maintenance, like, “you want to hang out with me but you don’t REALLY want to hang out with me.” But it may be something to try, if you know that your friend is naturally not a big talker.
That’s a good point about what it’s like to realize that someone isn’t safe to confide in. Last year I lost a friend in part because she thinks depression is just code for laziness, and it’s not a real MI like her OCD, because “real” MI requires a chemical imbalance and the fact that talk therapy works for some people proves somehow that no depressed people ever have faulty chemicals. That wasn’t the trigger for our friend-breakup, but basically there was a fight and I didn’t feel the need to patch things up with someone so judgmental.
Wow. Just wow. CBT (specifically exposure ritual prevention) helps people with OCD too, so that kind of shoots her whole argument. (Even in addition to the fallacy that changing patterns of thinking *doesn’t* affect your brain chemistry.)
Yeah, let’s say we define ‘illness’ as a chemical problem for the sake of argument. There’s chronic depression on the one hand, which is chemical, and depression caused by stress, trauma or unhealthy thought patterns on the other. That same stress, trauma, or cognitive distortion affects the brain. Even non-chemical treatments like meditation, mindfulness practice or breathing exercises are beneficial because they affect things stress hormones and brain structure. (I’m not a medical professional so I don’t know if I phrased that right but I think you know what I mean.)
I think part of the problem is when she’s stressed out she compares herself to other people and goes on long rants about how her life is harder than everyone else’s. Part of that is complaining about the time and energy her CBT takes, but she doesn’t seem to realize that a lot of us with other mental illnesses also have therapy and homework, not to mention the time and energy the brainweasels themselves take. She’s not a bad person; I think she’s compassionate w/r/t issues she understands but somewhat lacking in empathy. I wish her the best, but I can’t trust someone like that.
I agree that you need to be sure that you feel safe with people. I guess I would like to make a distinction between not being able to “get it” and being an unsympathetic asshat who wrongly disparages the entire concept of depression. My partner suffers from severe depression. I do not. I can listen, and I can try to educate myself, but at the end of the day, I am never really going to “get it” because I have not been there and haven’t felt that. It’s a chasm of experience that I can’t really cross, no matter how much I care or how good my intentions or how good my intellectual understanding may be. And sometimes my partner expects me to know or understand things about hir experience of depression that I just don’t grok, or at least can’t figure out on my own. But I would hope that my honest admission of my limitations wouldn’t disbar me from being a resource and a support or mean that I was never to be trusted. But asshats who cast doubt on the nature and severity and reality of depression, good to know who they are and steer clear of them. Two different groups, I hope, though I guess they might feel all the same group, and you always get to make the choices that are right for you.
Oh no, I don’t mean non-depressed people at all! I meant people who cast doubt as people who don’t “get it.” (I should also say that I was someone who didn’t “get it” once upon a time despite being horribly depressed, and depressed people would have been right to steer clear of me then.) Basically anyone who increases stigma, which doesn’t sound like you. 🙂
Thanks for clarifying. Glad we’re on same page.
I wish I had had as good a friend when I had a major depression episode my final year of college. The only time I heard from her in that period, during which I had withdrawn from almost everyone I knew, was when she demanded control of my website and told me, when I managed to crack open a bit and said I’d been having a bit of a hard time, that she didn’t want to hear it.
Someone who tells their withdrawn friend “I miss you and want to see your face” is doing something loving and compassionate.
I have a slightly different question for everybody:
How do I make it easy for friends to come to me with this kind of problem? Like, I’ve had times when I’ve been suicidal and mildly-to-moderately depressed and self-loathing, and I’ve begun to be able to talk with people about it, and that’s helped almost every time I’ve done it. Are there any good ways of letting people know that they can tell me if they are having suicidal thoughts, and I will listen?
Currently, tumblr is full of suggested suicide hotline posts and people saying “If any of you are having urges to suicide or self-harm, you can always talk to me.” That’s good; there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s a difficult hurdle to get over when you are the suicidal one: depression/self-loathing means you don’t trust people when they say, “You can talk to me.” Or you don’t want to be An Emotional Burden, or you don’t want to cause a fuss, or you’re afraid the person you go to will have you sent to the abusive mental hospital from all the awful movies. These are all things that have made me keep my self-harmful urges to myself.
I wish my friends would come to me if they have suicidal thoughts and want to tell someone. And they wouldn’t be emotional burdens at all. My God, quite the reverse. So many people have listened to me and cared for me, I want to be able to give some of that gentleness to other people if they need it.
But posting helplessly on my blog that “You can always talk to me!” is starting to feel futile. Is there anything more helpful I could be doing to reassure people that it is okay to talk to me?
(I suspect I know one way of welcoming this kind of conversation. Cliff Pervocracy’s personal tumblr gets a ton of asks from people who are troubled about their personal lives/vulnerable/on journeys of intense self-discovery. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that this is because he’s so open about blogging about his own state of mind and personal life. People feel a sense of kinship and flock to him for advice. So I guess the answer for me, if I want to make it easy for people to come to me when they’re depressed or suicidal, is to blog about my history of suicidal thoughts and untreated depression. I’m not sure I have the nerve to do that, but I think it would have good side-effects for others if I did.)
You have correctly answered your own question. You being in a better place, and talking about how it really has been for you, will make people feel safe to come to you. 🙂
I don’t have much to add to the many great things others have already shared, starting with the fantastic Captain. I struggle trying to offer support to my partner and various friends who struggle with depression while navigating my own minor depressive moments, which I think is mostly triggered by the stress of carrying the load for a partner who relies almost entirely on me, and yet still trying to get my basic needs met. And I have been paying attention to all of the information here in hopes of doing better or recognizing that what i am doing works some of the time.
As others have noted, each person is different in terms of how the depression manifests. Not only that, the same person differs over time, so what was helpful once may not be what’s helpful now or in the future. This is something that my partner has stressed repeatedly: that zie often cannot verbalize what zie needs, and even if zie could, it’s a moving target, so I can’t count on tomorrow’s needs reflecting today’s needs.
So sometimes being specific in offering support (cute pictures! walking on Sundays! hanging out and folding clothes together!) is good, and other times it just adds to the anxiety. Sometimes checking in regularly is good, and sometimes it increases the burden or is irritating. Which is to say, don’t give up, be willing to circle back, and keep going through the toolbox in whatever pattern seems effective while paying attention to the cues, especially nonverbal ones.
Once again, catching up on very old podcasts, I found something apropos. Krista Tippet in 2009 interviewing Andrew Solomon (author of The Noonday Demon), Parker Palmer (author of Let Your Life Speak), and Anita Barrows (author of Rilke’s Book of Hours) in an episode on depression: http://www.onbeing.org/program/soul-depression/224
Note that the conversation focuses largely on the spiritual dimensions. However, starting at 31:00 minutes, Parker Palmer talks about how friends tried to help and the one activity that really helped him through the worst period (spoiler: mostly wordless foot massages).
Im coming out the other side of depression, thanks to citalopram and friends. What helped me were specific offers. ‘Im free on Monday afternoons, would you like me to pop over for coffee?’ ‘I take my dog out at 4pm, would you like to come with us or could I walk your dog for you?’ ‘Im going to the supermarket tomorrow, is there anything you need?’ ‘Im going to x film next week, do you fancy joining me?’
What also helped is that the same friends didnt mind if I said no – or if on the day I said ‘sorry, I really want to but just cant manage it today’, and they didnt stop offering. But not in a pestering pressuring way – they offered, then if I went quiet they would leave it a week or two, then in a short message just check that I, ok and if Im still interested let them know, theyd love to set a different date.
All this taught me who my true friends were. And it was really valuable. Even just those who said they didnt know how to help but were thinking of me… Altogether, it really helped.
A couple of things I thought of while reading this
– If/When you ask about therapy to friends, do it really carefully, especially if you’re a person that doesn’t go to therapy. It can sound really patronizing really fast. It’s easy for the person you’re suggesting it to to hear “wow, you sound crazy so…” Personally I like “have you considered talking with a counsellor about this?” And I usually try not to use the word depressed unless they do first. Like I’d say “It sounds like things are really tough for you right now” way before I’d say “you sound depressed” Then if they brush me off, I stop, but if they want my help to connect to resources then I try to help or I talk about my own experiences with therapy as relevant.
– When offering help with obvious hard stuff I usually try to give people an out. Like if my friend says she has to go pick up her dog’s ashes (obvious hard thing) and I’m cool with supporting her while she does that, I’ll ask her if anyone’s going with her and offer to go but then give her a clear out, “but if you’d rather go by yourself or with someone else, no worries.” Then I don’t mention it anymore and go help if the request comes.
I wrote some other stuff too but I’m editing it because it basically boils down to, give people clear outs so they don’t feel like they have to chill with you when they’re not up to it. Like, if you think you’re friend’s in a shitty spiral, you can ask, “hey want to ____(coffee/movie etc)? But if not that’s cool too.” And then they can either say yes or no without worrying about you at all.
Also if you’re someone who wants to help by listening, you can identify yourself as an open to serious conversations person by acting interested and not freaked out when people bring up serious stuff. I find I can really tell which friends want to talk about serious things and which ones don’t by how they respond when I say something that leaves me a little vulnerable. The people that act all awk usually get only the party comedy version of my life’s events after that.
So much agreement with the ‘giving people a clear out’. A lot of the time when I was depressed, I struggled a lot with feeling like I had to say yes to everything or I would be a terrible person and people would abandon me forever, so people who gave me clear outs and stressed that it was okay if I didn’t want to do something that was supposed to be fun were invaluable in helping with that.
Thanks for this! I’m a Neuroscientist and Holistic Healer for a Happy & Healthy Brain, and here are 4 specific steps you can take to help your loved one find the ideal professional support they need: http://lifelongenerjoy.com/how-to-help-a-person-with-depression/
Amazing post, Captain. Thank you. This has helped me sort out in my head not only what I can do when I find myself in the LW’s shoes but also what I can ask for when I’m on the other side of this situation (and, yeah, both of those happen a fair bit).
With respect to your preamble I hope your crying is indeed cathartic, that you have shoulders to cry on or not as needed, and that the life/chemistry stuff begins to heal speedily.
Hi all, sorry to hear so many people have been triggered by the death of Robin Williams and the subsequent media shitstorm. I’ve been in remission from depression for over a year and my ideation was never triggered by external factors, but I know a lot of you are feeling very fragile over this, and it has stirred up some dark waters. I just wanted to offer the gentlest, most fresh-linen-and-kitten-fur-scented Jedi hugs possible, and I hope that you all find little ways to look after yourselves, whether it’s swearing off Twitter for a while, buying that candy you like, or dressing up as a Walnut Whip* and watching Disney movies. While eating Walnut Whips, if you like. Self-care, y’all.
*My term for when you wrap yourself in a duvet so that only your topknot pokes out. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walnut_Whip
Thanks so much, this is lovely and I do actually feel like I’ve just been hugged!
I thought this short that is narrated by Brene Brown might be helpful for some folks in this discussion – the difference between sympathy and empathy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
One of the more soul-crushing aspects of being depressed is just how _lonely_ it makes me feel. We live in a society where it’s not OK to be depressed, so I learn to put up a front and, when I can’t even do that, I withdraw. I’ve been in a flare-up (of my lifelong depression) for maybe a year now. I’m managing to function (sort of) by taking anti-depressants and forcing myself to keep up a certain routine, but I still feel dead inside and like I’m just hanging on by my fingernails.
One of the things that makes it hard to reach out to someone is the fear that they’re going to be weirded out or minimize my experience or try to fix me or otherwise push my experience away. When I’m really depressed, I just feel too vulnerable and fragile to be able to take a chance on someone. So I think the idea of reaching out and bringing up the possibility that someone is “feeling down” and, if they talk, just listen and accept what you hear and not try to push it away. It won’t help the depression, but it will make them feel less alone with it, and that’s not nothing.
BTW, the “friend who asked me to promise her that I would call her before I killed myself” sounds wonderful. Especially when she showed she really meant it.
I have depression and think it’s fair to say that while I’m over the worst of it I’m not free and clear. One thing that helped a lot was my flatmate at the time making a point to talk to me at literally every opportunity. Through the door some times when I wasn’t up to seeing people, or texting me. I don’t know if she did it because she needed to socialise or because she was worried about me (probably a mix of both given that she was the one that eventually made the doctors appointment for me). She didn’t tell me that what I was feeling was irrational because I knew that, and it was a lot of support when I needed it.
When I came home from university I was alone a lot. Until my old boss got in touch asking me to cover a few shifts. Leaving the house and being around people, having something to do for a few hours a week was such an important thing for me at the time. Most the people I work with were so Careful, except one new-ish person who just came out and asked if I was as crazy as him. Made me smile a bit and since then we’re been complaining about medication and therapists. It’s hard because I’m getting better while he isn’t and it’s hard for me to be supportive without triggering myself but some times being direct really helps.
One of my friends suffers from depression and also lost hir spouse in a horrible way last year. The best thing I was able to do for Friend was to simply say, “Hey, let’s go to see New Movie/Interesting Museum/Fun Thrift Shop,” and then we’d go and we’d giggle at the movies or squeal over cool clothing exhibit or buy ridiculous things because they were a quarter and we’d have fun. If Friend needed to just sit for ten minutes and be quiet, I’d bring a book so they could get some space. If Friend wanted us to have coffee and talk about Spouse, that was OK too. If Friend wanted to complain because their parents were driving them nuts, I’d listen and commiserate.
I’d try to suggest something every few weeks, so Friend didn’t feel hounded. (Also, I had stuff going on too, so I had to watch my spoons.)
Time, attention, love, enjoyment > help.
Now, that’s a T shirt.
Another post that knocks my socks off. Damn, you’re good at this.
Thank you, Jennifer. I’ve been wandering the web looking for items that articulate the grief I’m feeling. I’ve been reading you for a while and am in constant awe of your gift of bringing to tough, messy issues enormous clarity, sense and believable, realistic hope. I wondered if and how you would address this and your post exceeded everything I could imagine.
I’ve been “eaten by depression” (great image!) for the better (hah!) part of 35 years and counting, and it astonishes me when I find this stupid thing is shared by people whose talent I am in awe of, like you, and then you so bravely give the gift of telling us you are in our ranks, and putting words to what had been amorphous and inchoate. When you aptly describe this rotten thing, I feel as though you’ve lifted rocks off my hiding nasty fearful bugs and let the healing sun start to shrink them down to size.
Thank you. Bless you.
Well, thanks for the kind words. If we have to have this condition, at least we don’t have to have it alone.
Things that have worked for me, when I’ve been the depressed one or the not-depressed one:
Setting up a recurring date and (with permission) emailing/texting/calling to remind them of it/see if they need help making it.
Alternately, calling spontaneously with a coffee invite when I’m in the area, figuring I’ll eventually catch them when they have a spoon.
In either case, being upfront that a) I’m consciously working around their depression and b) I don’t mind doing so, their company is totally worth it to me is important, lest having to miss/turn down 2 of 3 dates makes them feel rotten.
Also, if I am doing a helpful thing (I’ll go with you to the shrink), trying to make there be a fun thing (and after we can hit the shawarma place a block away?) to balance it – for both of us.
Also, my social group, as a whole, has a safeword. If you call or text one of us and say “I Am Not Okay”, you have someone’s undivided, urgent attention, and that someone is probably tossing their clothes on and finding their keys while they listen.
It’s not that you can’t call me and say “I’m really down and want to vent” or whatever, but somehow having that phrase and knowing that using it means Priority One Red Alert The Person You Called Is Dropping Everything Now is just … really helpful. Both when it’s needed, and when it’s not.
Captain, as always, a superb set of answers. I know from experience these are the kinds of care that help me cope.
I have a housemate suffering under the vast weight of history and biology and identity difficulties. Housemate has the pros helping zir, and more access to medical/mental health resources than I do. From the outside, I’ve had to watch zir spiral ever deeper into the darkness, in spite of (because of?) objective improvements in zir circumstances and our efforts to live the above scripts/strategies in relation to everyone.
Gretchen’s pretty loud about how terrible a person I am for even thinking about turning zir out “just because” I am struggling to cope with the passive-aggressive stuff and the lack of hygiene or habitat care stuff and the side or misogyny that accompanies everything. How do you keep living those “hey I still like you as a person, don’t listen to jerkbrain” when their jerkbrains express through destructive and hateful behavior towards zir self and others? How do you manage to maintain boundaries when you share a roof?
I’ve tried (oh how I’ve tried) to use everything I’ve learned here, and to communicate the concrete things that we need for a clean, peaceful shared habitat. I know it’s the depression which reads as apathy and stubbornness from outside, and also? I just can’t even.
I’m genuinely afraid of zir indulging in further self harm if not watched, and zie isn’t in a position to pay market rates for housing.
How to keep being the good friend in all the above ways when you no longer get to recharge? To have more than a few stolen hours of quiet?
I have to say that, as a depressed person, nothing is more stressful than hearing ‘I’m here if you need me.’ It puts the burden of seeking help (or admitting I need it) on my shoulders. Having someone else initiate something is much easier (let me help you get to doctor’s appointments, let’s go to a movie, I’ll walk your dog with you) because it takes off a lot of pressure while still being helpful. And jerkbrain can’t indicate that it’s said it out of duty.
This is so helpful. I was depressed 20 years ago and I don’t remember all the well meaning people who wanted to Talk About It and save me, but I do remember the friend, who I have not seen in those two decades, who just took me to his place, put a video on, made me some food and talked about Batman comics. No fuss, no misery tourism and competing over who could be TT the most Caring and Sensitive. He saved me.
Now, I am probably not depressed but I am anxious and sad (because cancer) and overwhelmed and I do not want to talk about any of it. I want to do gentle and fun things that don’t tire me and I just need people to be kind and low maintenance. My friends have been generally pretty good at this but reading this has given me some thoughts about how to be even clearer about what I need and not pretending I am OK all the time, which is hard to stop doing but I am not OK.
This is a really insightful, useful piece for anyone who has a friend suffering from depression, or thinks they know someone who is spiralling or at risk. I’m suffering from depression at the moment and I’m finding it really difficult to ask for help from my friends, as they have already been there through so much and I don’t want to exhaust our friendship. I guess that what I really want is for them to bring out the old me, for us to talk about things outside my illness, because I’m trying so hard not to let it define me. But I can’t reach out right now… because the horrible depressed self won’t let me.
Thank you for writing this.
It’s so hard to know where to draw the line. I thought my girlfriend was my rock, my anchor, but then on Saturday she suddenly announced that she can’t “do this” anymore, that my depression doesn’t seem to be getting better, that I’m stuck in the past, that I don’t pull my weight in household chores.
I tried to be an open-book to avoid repeating past mistakes where I had an internal reality that my partner didn’t know about, but my girlfriend felt that I had too much going on to discuss her concerns. So, instead of broaching the subject, she pent up her frustration until she couldn’t cope anymore, and now I’m single. This hurts like hell.
Now I’m afraid of driving away the few friends I actually have. My ex said that it would be impossible to drive her away, yet there she went. How can I trust that I’m not putting too much on everyone else as well?
I’m so sorry that happened to you. It sounds like you did everything right, but sometimes people can’t hack it even when you’re perfectly transparent, even if they love you. I think you should keep being open and vulnerable about it; there are people out there who will not be able to cope no matter how hard you try to make it easier for them, but there are also people who will really appreciate your efforts and be able to work with you to find a good balance for your relationship!
It hurts so terribly to have someone assure you that you’re not too much work, and then change their tune before you’ve been able to internalize the message. But it really has at least as much to do with them as with you – others’ depression is never EASY to deal with, but it’s a person’s own internal stuff that determines whether they are able and willing to try. As a fellow depressed person, I’m thinking of you, and I hope you have some really positive experiences soon to balance out the awfulness of this one!
I realized after I posted that response that it doesn’t really address the fear of losing the few people you have in your corner – a fear I have, too. I think the best way to try and cover your bases is the same, i.e. being open with them, but not just about your depression, about your fear of alienating them as part of that depression. Opening the subject for discussion can do a few things:
-It can prompt them to tell you how they feel about being your friend, which can be reassuring, although you may have doubts about their sincerity. These doubts can sometimes be alleviated by the next thing on the list:
-It can prompt them to establish whatever boundaries they might need in the area. It’s possible you’ll hear something like “I love you and I want to listen, but sometimes [ABC internal and/or external thing] makes that hard!” And then you get to try and hammer out ways of dealing with ABC, or build in agreed-upon ways for them to say “Sorry, I can’t right now” that will signal to you that they still love you. Even if they don’t bring up any concerns, you can reassure them on this front, e.g. by saying “I know you may feel pressure to do XYZ for me all the time, but please know that you can say things like ‘today I can be a fun friend, but not a talking things out friend’. That would actually help me too, because if you’re open about that, it makes me feel more able to trust the sincerity of your offers/willingness to listen at other times!”…or anything else that works for you.
-It gives them an important piece of information, which is that getting and asking for support from friends is a scary, triggery area for many depressed people. Then they’ll know that you might need some extra help and understanding around it sometimes – that hearing “of course I like you!” isn’t necessarily enough, and you might have to have this conversation more than once.
It might not go perfectly, but it’s sometimes been a good conversation for me to have with people I really trust and want support from.
Thank you so much for replying.
I had a chance to talk to my ex yesterday as she was having belongings removed from the house. I see her point of view a little better now. Whereas I thought she was saying thinks like “you need to focus on the present, not the past” in order to encourage me, to her she was warning me that thinks were getting iffy for her. She never came right out said it; it was always in terms that I interpreted to be about me and my depression. I admit that I let depression overwhelm my life and our relationship and I can also say that when she did point out that she was getting burned out on it I stopped talking to her about it so much.
I asked her how she could seem so calm in the face of such a major change. Her response is that she doesn’t show her weaknesses. It struck me later: how was I supposed to know that she was upset if she never explicitly showed it or told me? She kept a happy face, she says, to try to grab a little happiness out of everyday. I never for a second considered that she would leave, and I think that got me in trouble. I expected her to work with me and be there once I got to a better place.
I’ve continued to be open with people and everyone has tremendously supportive. These are mostly acquaintances, as I now only have one friend. I know I need to broaden my social network, which is something my ex encouraged me to do and then got frustrated when I didn’t. I have a ton of work ahead of me, and I’m scared.
And then there’s going no contact – the idea scares me all to hell. I know I have to get used to her not being a part of my life, but the tightness in my chest only seems to lift when I talk to her. I don’t know if I have the will to get through this.
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