First and foremost, I’m fine today. I’m starting off with this because I know it’s hard sometimes for people to understand the difference between “I have depression” and “I’m depressed right now”. I struggle with dysthymia (a mild, persistent clinical depression), my brain is wired in such a way that I am more likely than most people to fall into one of those deep dark pits of depression. Something I saw today showed me how and why people who don’t deal with this from the inside can sometimes make those times worse when they are trying to make things better.
Between that, and the recent tragic death of Robin Williams, and the fact that I haven’t posted anything for about a month I decided it was time to post. I’ll probably post later about how my flag socks have stalled and what I’m doing to bring them back on track. (They’re going to be beautiful, it will just take longer than I’d like).
Before we begin, I’m not a mental health professional, and this is in no way medical advice. Although I do struggle with depression, I’m not an ‘expert’, and my observations come from my personal experiences dealing with myself, and being the person ‘on the outside’ dealing with a very small number of other people. I’m not going to pretend that this will reflect what everyone dealing with depression experiences. Your mileage may vary.
This is a rambling rant, but perhaps there will be something in it which will help you understand what it’s like to have depression, as opposed to just being a bit depressed today, and maybe I’ll be able to give you a starting point on how you can help a friend who’s going through it.
Back to the story. Upworthy posted a video labeled as “Having a Bad Day? Here Are 46 Powerful Things You Should Really Hear”. I’m not particularly having a bad day (though my impulse to argue with stupid things posted on the internet, on a completely unrelated topic, along with the beginnings of a headache,might be a warning sign that one is trying to start), and the video is actually a prose poem –
All very well and good. If I was having a bad day and someone steered me to this video, or quoted the poem to me, it might help to turn the day around. If I was actually depressed at the time it would make things worse. If you don’t immediately get how that works, you’ve never dealt with clinical depression, because it’s just not the same thing as being depressed.
It’s been explained to me as both a learned, protective behavior and an evolutionary response to stress. They body and mind both kick down into a lower gear, conserve strength, go into protective mode. The instinct of a depressed person is to curl up into a little ball, or fold a cocoon around herself, and just ‘be somewhere else’ let all the bad things wash on past. In the most extreme cases that instinct can lead to self harm or worse. (No, I’m not saying it’s logical, I’m just trying to explain how it can work). It’s an archaic response, and was probably helpful when the common stresses out there were things like famine and plague, situations where less social contact and less energy usage were likely to enhance one’s chance of survival. I’m not sure I buy the evolutionary model, but it’s sort of useful to bear in mind.
So, what can you do if someone you care for is being stalked by that black dog? You can help, but you should prepare yourself for it first, and have an idea of what you’re getting into. If something as simple as dropping by with a chick flick and some chocolate does the trick, that person wasn’t depressed (in the clinical sense).
When a depressed person (let’s say she’s a she for the sake of this discussion) is in this mode, anyone trying to drag her out of it is likely to be rebuffed, either gently or not so gently. Genuine, caring attempts to help might be treated as attacks on her worth, the seriousness of her situation, or what have you. You might even have that DVD thrown in your face, and spoken to in ways you don’t deserve just for an honest attempt to help. Depression has been called anger turned inward. Poke it, and it can very easily be turned outward.
The thing to remember is that clinical depression is an illness. If you bring chocolate cake to someone with a stomach flu she might throw up all over you. If you bring warm fuzzies to someone in the throes of depression she might do the same thing, only emotionally rather than physically.
Mind you, I’m in no way saying you would deserve to be treated in such a way, I’m just saying that the illness might well present that way. If it does, you are not to blame your depressed friend, because meeting venom with venom will just feed the beast. Hanging around and being a martyr to her depression is unlikely to help, unless you are really capable of just listening and not taking it personally. That’s a hard thing to do, and no one can or should blame you for distancing yourself from the situation. If you’re worried about leaving her in that state (and who can blame you) it’s perfectly reasonable to call another one of her friends, someone who hasn’t just been covered in the emotional vomit, and seeing if they can take over for a while.
OK, what if your friend is in the dark place and you haven’t had all the hurt thrown in your face. What can you do? The best place to start is to ask her if there is anything you can do. You can listen without judging.
Listening without judging is harder than it sounds. If she’s in the middle of the bad place, it’s very likely that she’s talked herself there, possibly been talking herself there for days. If she’s acknowledged to you in the past that she does this, then it’s appropriate to remind her that she’s done it before. If not, then this is not the time to try to show her that’s what she’s doing. She won’t be able to hear it right now. Listen as well as you can. Acknowledge what she’s saying without reinforcing it. Be aware of your limits and withdraw yourself when you must.
If she threatens to end it all, or, in particular, if she has a concrete plan in place to do so, that’s the sign that she needs medical intervention. Try not to push that panic button too early, but take her seriously.
And, again, if you need to walk away for a while, do so, but be as calm and non-judgmental as you can, let her know it’s not a permanent goodbye, and expect to hear that flash of anger and abandonment. If she’s said something over the top, it’s fine to ask for an apology afterwards, when she’s not in the midst of the pit of despair. It’s also appropriate to apologize at the same time if you feel that your well meaning attempts to cheer her up made it worse.
Remember, you didn’t break her, you can’t fix her, and if she could ‘just snap out of it’ she wouldn’t be depressed.