The Mighty Logo

How Feeling Like a Burden With Depression Is a Burden Itself

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

The burden of not wanting to be a burden.

Part of the psychological recovery toolkit is reaching out. We hear it all the time: phone a friend.

But it’s not easy. If it was — we’d all do it. Rumination, catastrophizing, isolation, wallowing in self-pity — they’re all part of being in a depressive state. It’s normal, or feels that way at the time. For most outcomes, hindsight is a great teacher. Talking to people, writing things out, connecting with the human race in a meaningful and emotionally vulnerable manner, are really jolly helpful. But when mental health declines, your mental health is in decline. And while that may be stating the bleeding obvious, the words “mental health” are tossed about so often, it’s easy to forget what they actually mean.

When mental health is compromised, reasoning ability is impaired.

Much like physical health, mental health is a spectrum. We can be a little bit sick or a lot bit sick — physically and/or mentally. As a society, we tend to understand the physical better than the mental. We usually know how to care for ourselves and others in order to maximize physical health, it’s even taught in primary school — eat healthy, be active, wash your hands, rest when you’re sick, don’t spread germs, go to the doctor, take your medication and bandage your injuries. We know this shit. We don’t typically expect the physically unwell to soldier on alone, but caring for ourselves mentally is not so universal. Some people are blessed with natural resilience, healthy brains and supportive validating environments in their formative years. Some people aren’t. If for whatever reason you end up with mental health issues (through nature, nurture, situation or circumstance), the first port of call is often denial — either by yourself or those around you. And denial has an unwelcome friend — shame. Acknowledging depression and anxiety can feel like you’re not strong or resilient enough. You’re too self-absorbed, lacking gratitude, willingness or willpower. By the time you acknowledge how unwell you really are, the trip down the rabbit hole is well underway. Reaching out to a friend is hard. Those good at understanding, taming and accepting emotions tend to side-step the rabbit holes, but those of us who are vulnerable to a spiral of emotional decline, fall into a hole before realizing a step has been taken.

Everyone has problems and there’s a natural desire to lighten the load for others, to not add to the burden. Logically we all know the important shit — there are clichés galore:

“A problem shared is a problem halved.”

“It’s OK to not be OK.”

“Those who mind don’t matter, those who matter don’t mind.”

“Silence = shame.”

“He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Unvoiced distress burrows into a familiar pit in the stomach, gnawing away, poisoning the soul from the inside out. But one way or another, the soul needs soothing and the choice lies with the soul’s owner as to how it’s soothed and what those consequences are.

Number one trick is to phone a friend.

I love my friends. I love my husband and my kids and the people in my support groups and my team of eternally patient professionals. Protecting those we love is natural and intuitive. Reaching out to say, “I fell down the rabbit hole — again,” adds a level of distress to beautiful people who are already dealing with their own rabbits. And of course the noisy voice of derision with permanent residency in my head, rolls out the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” You should be able to handle this shit. You should know what to do — just fucking do it. You shouldn’t be back in this hole. Nobody wants to hear all this shit again. There are people with real problems in the world — think of the starving children in Ethiopia. Put your big girl panties on and suck it up. Just give in, give up or get on with it. When the burden of being a burden becomes so burdensome the burden can no longer be held, it’s crunch time. Disappear into Wonderland with the big white rabbit, going permanently mad? Or just go — permanently? Or do what needs to be done and reach out?

Clearly the latter is the healthier option.

But thinking rational thoughts with a brain that’s on vacation is kind of tricky. And at this point in time, vulnerability to ineffective coping strategies is extremely high (I seem to be channeling my lovely psychologist). The first sharing is the worst sharing. Playing with the rabbits feels safe and familiar but more importantly, feels like protection for others. Until my external demeanor matches the internal, and a neon flashing sign, “She’s Depressed!” appears for all to witness, it’s comforting to internalize and try to solve the downward spiral alone. But the inside of my head is a noisy place and what I know doesn’t match what I do.

Getting back on the straight and narrow needs a conversation with a real human — not the cunning voice of fear and vulnerability that refuses to see hope and seek change. The straight and narrow path requires a real human to know the truth of the rabbit hole, so they can shine a light onto the path back out. So we of the mentally unwell — with our huge bag of psychological tools and tips, must reach out and stop playing with the rabbits in the big, big hole. And you of the mentally slightly better off — with the view of the rabbit hole from above — we need you to show us compassionate love. We can’t be forced out of the hole, but we can be guided from afar. My burdens may weigh you down, but together we can share and shed the load, and then who knows, perhaps one day I’ll shoulder some of your burdens, and shine the light into the darkness for you to burrow back out.

Getty image by mangojuicy

Originally published: July 7, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home