My last post was a bit of a downer, I’m sorry. But now you know what it’s like in my head. (And now I’ve got the Salt and Pepper Diner routine by John Mulaney stuck in my head. You’re welcome!)
Maybe you know or love someone who has depression. There’s lots of us. Maybe you read my last post and are like “oh my goodness! I didn’t know that depressed people thought like that! Is there anything I can do to help?”
Why yes, yes you can help. And no, you can’t help.
The first thing is to educate yourself. There are different types of depression and it’s going to affect each person differently. I can tell you what it’s like for me, but I can’t tell you what it’s like for your person. I don’t have it as bad as it could be. I joke about not being able to get out of bed, but there’s actually only been two days in the past year where I didn’t want to get out of bed, where I couldn’t get out of bed (and neither of those have been in the last month and a half). There are some people who literally can’t get out of bed. Depression is just in our heads, and it isn’t. It is an actual physical ailment. In our heads. The chemicals that are pretty well balanced in your head aren’t in ours. We’re deficient in one or another. That’s measurable and medically proven. We can’t just “get over it.”
Before I get into what you can do, I’m going to tell you what not to do. Don’t tell them to just “think positive.” I’m sorry, but that’s pretty much an impossibility for someone who has this type of chemical imbalance in their brain. Don’t tell them they’re just not trying hard enough – have you ever had to tell your brain “no” when it urges you to swerve in front of a semi? That’s hard. People with depression get up every day and fight, and they give it everything they have just to stay alive. Because their own brain really doesn’t want to exist anymore. It may seem like they have given up hope and the will to live. Yes, yes they have. But if they’re still alive, then they really haven’t given up hope and they need to be encouraged to stay alive and they need support to stay alive. You have to realize that you cannot fix them. You can’t make them happy. If you are somebody who likes to fix things and people, that will probably be the hardest thing to accept. You can support them, encourage them, love them, but you can’t fix them and you can’t do the work of getting better for them.
So, what can you do?
Be there. Don’t shun them. Love them. Make them feel wanted and accepted despite their constant down-ness.
Remind them of the truth when all that’s in their head is lies. They probably won’t believe you. Don’t insist on them believing you or agreeing with you. Just simply remind them, and leave it at that. Don’t brush away their feelings, or tell them that they’re wrong. To us, our feelings are VERY real. Even if we know they’re lies. Attempts to cheer us up might work temporarily, but I don’t think anyone’s ever been able to make me laugh my way out of depression. The root causes and imbalances have to be addressed in order for recovery to happen. If everything in my life all of a sudden started going perfectly – all my dreams were coming true – I’d still have to take my pills, see my therapist, ride my bike, be thankful every night, and eat right. Everything going perfectly would really help, but it wouldn’t cure.
Learn their triggers – what makes them feel more depressed? Learn how they express their depression. When I’m pinning like mad to my dysthymia board, yep, I’m down. I try to keep the thoughts in my head, not let them out to bring other people down, so usually I just go silent. Even if I don’t know what to say to you and it doesn’t feel like I really want you there, believe me, I WANT YOU THERE! Please don’t leave. This is really important: if you know someone is depressed and they push you away, do not leave. You don’t have to be all up in their face, but just be around. Check in on them from time to time, even if they scream at you to leave every time. The morning I called the national suicide hotline I cried for a while in my mother’s arms, then I went and laid on her bed and called them. She looked in the room from time to time, but didn’t come in. When I finished talking to the hotline I went and sat in the room where she was working. I know that it bugs her to have people just sitting around while she’s working, so I went in the living room but I didn’t tell her where I was going. It was only about five minutes before she ran frantically through the house, looking for me. That helped. That made me feel loved. I still felt like my life was hopeless and going nowhere, but I knew that someone loved me, and it helped.
Pray for them. I don’t know if you believe in God or not, but I know that if I did not have God in my life I would be dead. I cannot fight my depression without His help. I don’t know how people without God are able to fight their depression. Yes, I know Christians who have committed suicide and I don’t know what went on their brains that led them to that act. Do I feel like half the time He’s messing with me? Yes. Do I unjustly blame Him for my depression, thoughts, and actions? Yes. Is He big enough to handle it, understand me, forgive me, love me, and guide me anyway? Yes. God helps. God’s Word helps. Songs that God has inspired people to write helps.
Again, it’s going to be different for everybody. Having people around helps me, and is probably the biggest reason I really don’t want to move out on my own right now. I’m terrified of going down and there being nobody there to just be there.
Know that depression in most cases is treatable. And even in treatment-resistant depression they’re developing new treatments and techniques all the time. Encourage your loved one to get help. You can’t force them to go to a therapist or doctor, but you can encourage them. If they want to get help but it’s just too overwhelming for them, then make the appointment, drive them there, sit with them in the waiting room. Exercise with them. Make healthy meals for them. Again, they can get better, but it’s not overnight and there will be setbacks.
Another thing: if someone you know, not necessarily know well enough to say you love them, just an acquaintance struggles with depression, don’t treat them differently than you would any other acquaintance. Almost nobody talks to me in church anymore. I’m there every week, and yes, I have gotten pretty good at ducking through the crowds so I don’t have to talk to anyone, mostly because I don’t know what to say. But Mom tells me every week “they all ask ‘how’s Anessa?'” Depression isn’t contagious. You can say hi. You can ask how I’m doing and I can usually tell if you want a “I’m fine” answer or if you really want to know how I’m doing. Then just talk about something you’re interested in and I’ll smile and nod when I think it’s appropriate to do so. If you want the real story from me, there will probably be emotion that accompanies it. It’s ok, tears don’t hurt either. If you just say “I really don’t know what to say, but I’m praying for you, and I’m here if you need anything” that helps too. I will probably never take you up on your offer, but I really do appreciate it. Thank you.
On days you know will be rough for them, give them extra love, think about what they like and do something special for them. Yesterday was my birthday. Yep, I went down. Everybody told me they just didn’t know what to do that wouldn’t make me sad. Spoiler: doing nothing for fear that something will make me sad, makes me sad. Something is better than nothing.
Come alongside your person who is fighting depression, hold their hand (literally at times) and let them know that you believe in them, that you are there for them, and that you will help them fight. Because sometimes we just get tired of fighting alone.
If you have someone you love who struggles with depression and you do this for them, you are not only their hero, you are my hero too. I know it’s not easy. I know you get tired and discouraged too. Take time for yourself to recover and take care of yourself because you can’t help the person you love if you’re not near-healthy either. Side quest: is anybody really 100% healthy? Like, nothing wrong with them at all? What would that even be like?
There’s so much more I could say and lots of people have written lots of stuff about depression and how to help. Google it.
If you love someone who has depression, thank you. If you let them know you love them, even when they are down – especially when they are down, thank you. It means more than you could possibly know.