“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
— Laurell K. Hamilton
If you love someone who is depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. They don’t know. Depression isn’t a straightforward, thought-out response to a tough situation – depression just IS, like December’s weather in Seattle.
Be mindful of the darkness, lethargy, hopelessness and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them, day in and day out, until they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a true friend to someone who’s depressed, but it’s one of the kindest, finest and most impactful things you will ever do.
Angel and I have worked with dozens of depressed people over the years, and we have experienced bouts of depression ourselves. One thing I am certain of is that there’s no “one size fits all” kind of advice for depression. The reminders below aren’t universal clarifications, but simple guidelines that will hopefully give you a general starting point for helping your depressed loved one cope and heal, gradually.
1. Depression is not something a person consciously chooses.
When you’re lost deep in those woods, it might take you some time to realize that you’re lost. For a while, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path – that you’ll find your way back any moment now. Then night falls, again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and although it’s agonizing, it’s time to admit that you’ve disoriented yourself so far off the path, so deep into the woods, that you can’t even tell which direction the sun rises or sets from anymore.
You’re not choosing to be where you are, but you can’t see a way out. That’s how depression felt to me when I was struggling through it many moons ago.
Depression is one of the most helpless and tiring emotional experiences a person can live through. Sometimes it’s feeling lost, sometimes it’s feeling despondent, and sometimes it’s feeling absolutely nothing at all. There are times when depression can leave you feeling completely dead inside, incapable of moving and doing the things you used to enjoy. Depression is not just a bad mood, and it’s certainly not something you can just “get over” when you feel like it. No one chooses to be depressed, and no one can turn it off or on in an instant whenever they feel like it.
2. Depression is hard to wrap your mind around if you haven’t experienced it.
Some people may imply that they know what it’s like to be depressed simply because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or lost a loved one. While these tough life situations can lead to depression, they don’t create depression by default. In most cases these experiences carry with them strong emotional feelings. Depression, on the other hand, is often flat, hollow, and insufferable – literally sapping a person of emotion, hope and reason.
You don’t feel like YOU. You don’t even feel human. You’re hopeless and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and desperate and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be better soon,” but you know you won’t.
Here’s a chilling quote by David Foster Wallace that brings this point home:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.
Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
3. Saying things like “it’s not that big of a deal,” “you just need some fresh air,” or “it’s time to move on” rarely help.
It’s easy to tell someone you love “positive” things like this because you think you’re giving them hope and helping ease their pain, but to someone suffering from depression these kinds of simple, clichéd phrases often come across the wrong way – thoughtless, empty and essentially worthless.
The truth is phrases like these don’t address reality and only agitate the anxiety within, making a depressed person wish they were alone. It’s like trying to strap a two-inch Band-Aid on a foot-long, gaping wound.
So what can you say instead? Again, there’s no “one size fits all” answer. Just be supportive.
Here’s a rough idea of what I might say (maybe not all at once):
“I love you, and I’m not the only one. Please believe me. Please believe that the people who love you are worth living for even when you don’t feel it. Strive to re-visit the good memories depression is hiding from you, and project them into the present. Breathe. Be brave. Be here and take today just one step at a time. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs 900 pounds. Eat when food itself sickens you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason. I’m here now, and I’ll be here tomorrow too. I believe in you. We are in this together.”
And then I’d give them a long, silent hug. Again and again.
4. Even when they’re pushing you away, you can still be there for them.
“I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”
That quote from Margaret Atwood’s book, Cat’s Eye, reminds me of the desperate loneliness and despondency one feels when depressed. But even though depression makes a person feel hopelessly alone, that’s often exactly what depression motivates a person to seek, more isolation. People suffering from depression typically get frustrated with feeling like they’re a burden on their loved ones. This causes them to isolate themselves and push away the very people they need the most.
If a loved one becomes distant through their depression, just do your best to remind them as often as possible that you’re still nearby, but don’t force them to socialize or talk about their feelings if they don’t want to. Be patient. Ease into it.
Keep in mind that even though they may want their space, this doesn’t mean they want to face their pain alone 24/7. Schedule in time to spend with them. Offer to take them to their favorite restaurant, or even pick up some tasty to-go food for them. Introduce plenty of opportunities to create informal one on one time where you can break them out of their routine, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Reach out to them at random intervals. Be a present, living reminder that they are not alone.
5. Depression exhausts and consumes a person, which is why you can’t take their behavior personally.
Relentless exhaustion is a common side effect of depression. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be an overwhelming and excruciating experience. Also, someone suffering from depression may feel OK one moment and feel completely depleted the next, even if they’re eating right and getting plenty of sleep. This can result in them canceling plans, departing get-togethers early, or saying no far more often than you’d like. Just remember it’s not about you – it has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do. These are just some of the prevalent side effects working through depression.
Do your best to never take anything they do too personally. People can only give to others what they have, and depression takes almost everything away from a person. All your actions and words should come from a place of love, but that doesn’t mean your depressed loved one will always be loving in return, and that’s OK. When you do not take things personally, you liberate yourself – you open yourself to loving someone who truly needs you, freely, and without letting needless expectations get in the way of the immeasurable amounts of affection you are capable of giving.
I’d like to riff a bit more on my point above about the fact that “people can only give to others what they have.” Remember, this applies to YOU too. Caring for a depressed loved one can be fatiguing. If you don’t properly take care of yourself, you cannot properly take care of them no matter how hard you try. You may be able to be there physically, but if your mental and emotional reserves are depleted, you will have very little to give.
So set some love and care aside for yourself too. Refill your bucket on a regular basis. That means catching up on sleep, making time for fun and laughter, eating healthy enough to maintain peak energy levels, and otherwise making time for recovery from the pressures of loving someone through their depression. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the Self-Love chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
If you have experience with helping a loved one cope with depression, or if you have anything to add to the list above, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Photo by: Danielle Dautel