Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Right Way of Attending to Someone Who's Depressed

I've had depression many times. There are days where that dark pall comes up and everything seems futile and exhausting and nothing I do makes any difference to anything. You can't feel anything anymore and everything is simultaneously underwhelming and overwhelming.

Sometimes the feeling lasts for hours, maybe several days, but that's not depression. Depression is when that despair, numbness, weariness, and lack of care turn into weeks, into months, into a seemingly unending tunnel of meaninglessness. Depression is defined as a mood disorder which interferes with daily life for a long period of time.

Each time I was depressed, I had various levels disclosure about my emotional state to others. Sometimes only a few people knew, sometimes most of my friend network, and sometimes I've blogged and tweeted about it to let the whole world know.

Funnily enough, the most comforting times were when I tweeted about my depression publicly. It enabled me to connect with others who understood what I was going through. Some of my internet friends would offer the best consolation they could: saying they stood with me and commiserating about how it sucked.

And that was enough. In fact, it was exactly what I needed.

There are lots of wrong reactions to someone with depression. There are things like, "Gosh, just get over yourself already," which are obviously unproductive. But most of the unhelpful things come from people who are trying to be helpful. Most negative comments are from those closest to us who, in their desire to see us feeling better, put too much emphasis on changing us and not enough on being with us.

"Let's do something fun tonight. You've been down lately." This minimizes depression's breadth. "Being down" isn't the same as depression, nor as easily cured, in the same way that having a cold isn't the same as having cancer.

"You'll feel better eventually." Focusing on a later date is unhelpful because the depressed person either doesn't care about the future or cannot conceptualize such an idea in their current state. We don't care about next year: we want to feel better now.

It also focuses on being better, when what we really need is to accept how we're feeling at the moment. Depression isn't something that has a quick, 100%-successful solution. Sometimes it gets better and sometimes it doesn't. Focusing on a future where life is unimaginably sunny is the wrong way to go.

"Maybe you need a change of pace/a vacation/to practice thinking happy thoughts/to take control of your life/to pray more." Temporary changes like a vacation won't permanently fix depression. Nor will mental efforts fix depression. Everyone who is depressed wishes and prays that they weren't.

Putting pressure on the individual to find their way out brings on guilt and makes the person feel inadequate and unworthy--which only feeds the depression. We need to stop looking at depression as a problem to be solved, because that turns the individual from a person into a problem. We need to see depression as an emotional disturbance where the person needs an extra helping of constancy and friendship.

"God doesn't want us to be depressed." While it may be technically true, it implies many things that aren't. God doesn't want anyone to be depressed, but he's not mad at people when they are. He's not upset or disappointed in them. He knows depression is not their fault. He doesn't think they need to buck up and be cheerful already, and he doesn't think they're hurting the Kingdom. There's room in God's plans for depression.

Moreover, he doesn't always give miracle cures. Sometimes impossible things happen, but frequently they don't. Prayer isn't about making things happen. When you chat with a friend, it's about talking and enjoying each other's company. God is good at that. He listens and sticks around, and is patient and okay with silence. He'll never shame you for how you feel.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" This sounds like the most innocent thing of all. But like the rest of these comments, it focuses on curing the person. What a depressed person needs is not a desperate race to feel better. We know you want to help. But you cannot make a depressed person feel better. You need to accept that fact. You're not a failure of a friend if you cannot banish the blues.

What a depressed person needs is someone who empathizes. Friends should do what they always do: commiserate when times are tough and say, "Yeah, that sucks. What you're feeling sounds awful." Then they continue life normally. Be friends as you always were, simply with extra understanding and patience when the other person can't react as positively to life as they used to.

The other things a depressed person needs are practical. We need to keep seeing our friends and doing our hobbies. But when you're depressed, none of that stuff brings you joy. You still love your friends, but you don't feel it in the same way. Consequently, you sometimes need an extra push to get out the door on Friday night. Wallowing alone in the dark just sounds so much easier.

Last of all, really good friends are allowed to gently prod a person in the direction of seeing a doctor or psychologist. It's hard to seek help when you don't feel like wanting to do anything. Sometimes having someone gently ask if you'd consider just one appointment, just to try it out, can make a difference.

You can't solve someone. You can only be there as they make their way through. Being a friend is enough.

Word count: 939.