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10 Things to Know If You Want to Understand Your Loved One’s Depression

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Depression is a battle I’ve bee fighting my whole life. I tell you this because we have a unique opportunity to have an honest conversation about depression. In that vein of thinking, this is my top 10 things I wish people who do not have depression could understand.

1. We don’t stop being depressive.

Being depressed can be a 24/7 condition. It is a constant, daily battle with our brains on a good day when nothing else is going wrong. Add in any stressors or other medical conditions, and that battle is like fighting while trudging through mud up to your knees. We have to continue to fight because we know if we stop or if we just rest a minute, we’re going to sink into the abyss.

Climbing out of there can take days if we’re lucky, and as long as years if we’re not. Triggers determine the difference between a good day and a bad one. I’ve had more than a dozen times where I have felt OK. Then, the voice in my head will whisper. Sometimes, I can tell that voice to STFU. Sometimes, I really can’t, and that becomes all I can focus on until I can again.

2. We feel guilty about being happy.

If you ask me if I’m happy, then I’ll tell you I am. Really, sincerely for the first time in my life, I am honestly happy with my life. I am loved by my amazing husband and children. I have a great network of friends who support me. I am well-respected within my work scenes.

And I feel absolutely guilty about it. We’re used to being “less.” So when we find something that makes us “more,” we usually try to enjoy it with a sense of wary caution. After all, experience has shown us the other shoe will eventually drop, and it will be like an anvil to the head. Why? Because we don’t deserve this happiness. We should know our place and just stay there.

That’s why telling us “But you have so much to be happy about!” you are only feeding the guilt that we’re already carrying around.

3. If you can see we’re depressed, then we are losing the battle.

We are master thespians, we depressed folk. We know how to be “on” for the rest of the world when we have to be, like at work or friend/family functions. It’s a mask we wear, because we know if we don’t then:

  1. We’re not going to survive the day.
  2. It’s easier to pretend to be someone else than deal with our demons.
  3. If we let you see, then we have to explain, and explaining is exhausting. I’m not sure what it is, but every time I am depressed, people outside my circle of friends feel this entitlement to know every nuance of “why” I’m depressed. As if they have an ability I don’t to figure out how to “fix” me, if they just have every detail.

Except they can’t “fix” me. There is no “fixing” people with depression. We can manage our disease, but we cannot be cured. You are not entitled to know what very personal trigger set off this episode.

So I wear a mask instead, and nine times out of 10, it works. It fools you into that complacent “I don’t have to get involved” state. I get to muddle through, and you get to go back to your life. On the occasion, I cannot get the mask on just right and you notice, it means I’m losing that battle. It means I am struggling with everything I’ve got to keep myself together because I have to work. I have children who depend on me to be present. I have people who depend on me to do my part.

4. Depression affects everything.

Have you seen the commercial for “Depression Hurts”? Not only does depression cause physical issues with our bodies, but it can make any other medical issues we may have worse and harder to treat. It can make sleep a combat event (if we get to sleep at all). It also shortens our fuse to an irrational rage at trivial nonsense.

Depression can steal away your creativity and drive. It siphons the precious little energy we have in brain fogginess, inability to focus, downward spiral of job performance and bad decision-making. Doesn’t make it OK, but I have done things in a bad depressive state I would never do when I was well-managed. Ever. Why?

Because when you’re in a bad depressive episode, it’s usually a toss up between feeling everything and feeling nothing. (Sometimes that means knowing you should feel something, but being a wreck because you are unable to touch that bauble of emotion.) So we go to what we know will either dull the sensory overload or let us feel something.

Let me clarify: I am not making excuses for our negative aspects or behavior. I am explaining these are part of our disease. We already know we’re screwing it up. Thanks.

5. Your good intentions confirm our sense of worthlessness.

We know you mean well, but man. Let me break it down for you:

“Just choose to be happy.”

Because we’re actively “choosing” to be miserable? We can “choose” to pretend to be happy. When we do that, it’s for you so you stop telling us that the only thing keeping us from not feeling like giant steaming piles of sh*t is that decision.

“[Insert terrible thing that happened last week], but I don’t let it affect my day.”

Good for you. I envy your ability to separate out the facets of your life so you can function like a normal human being. I do not have that ability because my disease is not logical and infiltrates every part of my thought process. If I could do it, then I would. I don’t so I’m here, working my ass off, as best as I can.

“Exercise more. You’ll feel tons better.”

Or diet. Or go on vacation. Or…the list goes on and on. I know we humans are innately insistent on fixing our fellow humans, but this is really hard for us. One, we’ve already considered all the possible fixes, and we’ve probably tried them all. And you know what? Everything is a Band-Aid for this gushing wound.

Two, the idea that you think we haven’t already exhausted the resources we know we have is demeaning, whether you mean it to be or not. In our heads, we’re screaming at you, “How am I doing it wrong? I must’ve done that suggestion wrong, because I still think I’m worthless!”

“If I had your life, then I wouldn’t be depressed.”

Not sure if this is part of the, “You have so much to be happy for” thing, but if you had my life, then you’d have my depression. You’d sure as hell would be depressed. I honestly have a love/hate relationship with my life. See #2.

There are so many more, but I hope you get the point. We know you’re trying to help, to love someone as broken as we are the best you can (and the most we’ll let you), but for the millionth time: You cannot fix us.

6. We’re usually the most loyal friends.

Just about every person who has depression I know will give the shirt off their back to help another friend in need, even when we’re in crisis (If we know and can manage to get out of bed, and sometimes we can do it from our beds. Thank you, technology!). Why? Because we know what it is to be at the bottom of life, looking up at that speck of light from the hole we’re sitting in. Self-made or life-made, everyone could use a little help getting up and out.

I know. I know. You’re thinking, “So, you clearly know how to get out…” The thing is it’s not that simple. We don’t believe we are worthy of getting better, but damn, if we don’t think every single one of you are.

7. We hate burdening you with our problem.

I have an amazing support system. All you have to do is read my wall this week and amid all the offers of help (and most were offers of a listening ear), all I can manage is a, “Thank you.” Not because I think they’re insincere or nosy busybodies, but because I know they have things going on of their own. And I don’t want to burden them with this pain.

Again, I know this is illogical. Most of us depressive folks are the first to tell our friends, “You need me, you call me. I am always here for you.” All I can tell you is to keep offering. Don’t be pushy about it. Don’t say, “You’ll feel better if you just get it out.” Just remind us we are worthy and you are there whenever we’re ready to reach out. And hey, sometimes just knowing you’re there makes a little of our darkness go away.

8. Depression does not mean suicidal.

I am severely depressed right now. While I have been suicidal in the past, some 20 plus years ago when I was a teenager, I am currently not. I have too many things I need to do still. I have kids to raise, books to write, TARDIS to paint, people to love and networks to build! And that’s just the easy stuff!

We can be depressed without the urge to kill ourselves. Think of a Venn diagram: one circle is depressed people, the other suicidal people. Mush them partially together, and you have the depressed people who are suicidal. It’s not all of us  though many of us have considered it. Some of us have a history of previous attempts. So please, for the love of all things sacred, do not let the first thing that comes out of your mouth when you find out we’re having an episode be: “OMG, are you going to kill yourself?”

You should only be concerned if we start giving our personal belongings away. Worry if we specifically talk about trying to kill ourselves. Worry if we’re suddenly reconnecting with people to make amends for wrongs we think we did against them. Worry if we don’t return calls, emails or texts. Even then, tell us you’re concerned about us and ask if we need you to help us get professional help. If we say we need help, please follow through.

9. Your sad and our sad are painfully different.

This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves. I’m not saying my constant issues with depression trump your dog dying last week. I am saying they are different and should not be compared. When you do decide to compare how you managed to move on from your dog dying, your parents’ medical issues, how [insert random event] was so stressful, to my struggle to keep my head above water without any undue stress, in my head I want to scream: “I’m not you! I cannot just ‘move on’! If I could, don’t you think I would? Do you think I like feeling like a complete and total failure at life because I cannot do this one thing and get past all the guilt, self-doubt and self-hate over this issue which clearly isn’t a big issue for you?”

10. Genuine happiness does not equal “cured.”

My second biggest pet peeve is when you say things like, “Yesterday, you were all happy. Really depressed people aren’t ever happy.” Ever? We are allowed our happy moments. We are amazingly great in celebrating life milestones, birthdays, promotions (even ours), and all the great parts of being human. However, that does not mean we are “cured” of our depression. It really just means we won the battle for the day and manage to carve a little goodness out for those we love. The war is still ongoing, but even during the battle weary can have good days.

So, where do we go from here?

The best thing you can do for us is be there. Be patient. Be compassionate. Remind us to eat. Let us sleep. Buy us a book. Nudge us to come out of the darkness when we’re able. Be a safe place where we can cry hysterically at night. Forgive our irrational anger. Help us find our worthiness, even temporarily.

Let us grieve our losses, however trivial they may seem to you. Don’t look at us like we’re crazy. Buy us a coffee or tea and sit on a park bench with us in silence. Remind us that you’re our 2 a.m. friend. Don’t pretend you know our struggle. Just respect it and support us. Listen without trying to fix it. Hugs. Fresh baked goods. Kleenex in your house. It really is the little things. We’ll be ever so grateful.

This post originally appeared on The Medium.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. 


Originally published: August 9, 2016
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