How to help a loved one with depression? Listen to them. That’s it. Yes, seriously. No, this is not a joke. No, this is not as simple as it sounds.
2016 was a hopeless year. For me, it was especially hard for various reasons but mostly, it was because that was the year my stress barometer broke and my innocent seeming stress turned into full-blown depression. Whenever I was stressed, I would call up my closest friend and rant and rant and rant. I would also secretly cry every night before bed and in the mornings my eyes would look like someone beat up an already beaten up Rocky Balboa! I am very dependent on friends, mainly because I never really saw my family as being inclusive and non-judgemental. My family is cold and awkward with the concept of love. My mother never hugged us and my sister and I grew up hating hugs and the concept of affectionate touch. So yeah, friends were always the support system in my life. No matter what the problem was, I would go to my friends first and it would take me a while to understand that this sort of thing should be discussed within the family. But for me, my friends were my family. I chose them and really liked them. Can’t really say that about my family. So when I went through the early days of depression, I really looked towards my friends for support and for help and really, a sense of reality, which was slowly going away from me. But I didn’t get that. What I got was laughter, invalidation of my feelings, isolation, feelings of loneliness, and more reasons to cry. One instance which I haven’t forgotten and that was a real turning point for me was when two of my friends were planning a get-together (lunch for four people) and my closest friend asked me if I would go. I replied, saying, ‘Hmm you know what, I’ll get really tired, it’s exhausting just to think about’. I expected her to say, “Oh ok, if that’s how you feel, but tell me if you feel up to it”. What I didn’t expect her to say was ‘Man, shut up, what tired, it’s only four people, hahaha.’
Now, it might not sound harmful or mean or inconsiderate, and truthfully, it won’t affect you if your mental health is fine. But when you’re depressed, you feel so many things and nothing, all at the same time. I felt tired, physically and mentally, talking to anybody was a task that would just drain me of all my energy. I had stopped eating, or feeling hungry even. I lost weight which negatively affected my self-esteem, but at the same time it was getting me all this attention that I was not used to – people really liked my ‘figure’, and somewhere I liked that I looked like the girls in all the magazines. This sort of conflict was not good for my brain. I would feel guilty that I didn’t want to talk to anybody but every time I would hang out with friends, it would always end with me going home and crying for the next hour. I felt so betrayed because these were people that I thought of as family, these friends that I gave all my time and energy to, whose calls I would always pick up, even when I knew they wanted to rant about their ex-boyfriend they broke up a year ago with. I didn’t understand how they could be so insensitive to someone who had been a really good friend to them for many years.
I felt betrayed, like I was all alone, like they didn’t care about me at all. I’m pretty sure August 2016 was just me crying every day because I really don’t remember anything else from that month. Soon enough I stopped talking to friends, didn’t have new ones and stayed
in my stressful house all the time. Friends would make plans, I would say, “No, I’m too tired”. By this time they had learned that asking me questions about the tiredness gave them no real answer and soon they stopped. I went days without talking to people and would always hit them with the same sentence over and over again. “I don’t have friends”. The reaction to this sentence too gave me more reasons to withdraw from them and just be alone. People somehow got offended at this statement.
Most of the time, I would get anger and exasperation. They didn’t understand how I could even make such a statement. I had so many friends, including them, that had been there for me for many years. How could I have said that! But no one ever asked me why I felt like I had no friends and I took that as my cue to fall back, forget I had friends, stay in my dark zone and accept this fate of depression and unproductivity that I deserved, because maybe I wasn’t a good enough human after all.
What I hated most was when friends would say, ‘I just don’t know how to help you’. I wasn’t asking for anything. I just needed them to listen. Hear me and understand my feelings as my feelings only, and not take offense at how I felt. I knew that friends couldn’t help me overcome my depression but I wasn’t aware that friends could make me feel like I didn’t have anybody for support. When people closest to you constantly fail to acknowledge your feelings, it hurts like hell and the tears sting more than usual. I have gone through a lot and I have gone through it alone. I pushed away all my friends and floated through time because it didn’t really seem to exist. I had lost all my anchors – friends, rationality, critical thinking. I had a muddled mind. In those months, I understood what people meant when they said depression is comfortable, and I understood how someone could be depressed and yet still laugh on the outside. And very truthfully, I don’t remember much, because apparently depression affects your memory too. I had my very own, personal dementor and I sadly did not like chocolate.
It’s only when I started going for therapy did I understand how my actions affected others and how there was still hope for me. I saw going to therapy as defeat, not of my own abilities to fight back with my brain, but failure of my friends. ‘I go to therapy because I don’t have sensitive friends that I can talk to about my problems’ is still a legitimate thought my brain produces. It is like saying ‘Damn I have to go to a doctor because my closest friend can’t cut open my chest, do thoracic surgery and sew me back up’.
I once had someone tell me that I’d commit suicide if I didn’t have any friends and I remember being so angry. How could anyone have the audacity and the stupidity to say something like that? Now I sort of see where he was going with it. I’m overly dependent on friends and that leads me to love them deeply, care about them, it motivates me to always be there for them, but it also opens me up to a world of hurt that might come from my own hands.
All I really want to say is, just listen. It might be hard to keep yourself from telling your depressed friend that what they’re thinking is stupid and irrational and doesn’t make sense, but you know, they probably already know that. They just want you to listen. There is no replacing professional help, but a therapist or a psychiatrist isn’t going to always be there. They are professionals, they provide support by the hour. It is important to have a support system for people like us, even if it’s one person. Have empathy, be sensitive, and try not to talk over your friend when they tell you they’re tired and you know they haven’t been out of bed for three whole days, or they don’t feel like doing anything when you know they haven’t done anything this past week. I’ve spent long days being lonely yet surrounded by people, and once you’ve felt that way, it’s not hard to be by yourself. I do have friends who are empathetic and sensitive and have no problem in just listening to me as I try to cover up my tears with laughter and crack jokes to make myself feel better, but if it’s not coming from the person you want it to come from, it doesn’t really matter.
If you feel like you don’t know how to help your friend, ask. If they won’t tell, ask specific questions, like if your behaviour bothers them in any way, how does it make them feel, etc. Even asking how they’re feeling more than once shows that you care, so the standards are set real low and even then when a friend falls short, it’s easy to not think of them as a friend anymore. If you can, then ask yourself the same questions. Introspect as much as you can, put yourself in their shoes if possible. I have written countless notes on my phone trying to describe my feelings to myself and in each of them I’ve chronicled how lonely I felt, how I thought that my friends didn’t care about me and weren’t putting in much effort. Maybe that wasn’t true, but it’s how I felt and it made me push them further away. I never wanted to hurt them but I did not see a point in interacting with them seeing as it would have been a net loss- I felt worse talking to them and I was sure I would bring their mood down too. Regardless of what was going on though, I always told my friends to tell me if they ever felt hurt by my actions, because I was not capable of such empathy and forethought those days. So if you think your depressed loved one is being a dick to you and people around them, tell them. Don’t barge into their room and say ‘Yo, you’re being a dick dude’. No no, I’m not saying that. Keep your lines of communication open enough that you can express your own feelings while being emotionally available to understand their state of mind too. It might seem counter-intuitive to tell someone going through depression, who is already so dejected with life, that they’re being an asshole and to point out how their life and relationships are falling apart, but there is only so much slack you can cut someone before they start to fall down a slippery slope, from where it is difficult to return. It’s important to set boundaries, to keep them in the kind-of-safe zone, to let them drift off at sea but not too far, because they do need to swim back and it’s essential to have a shore to swim back to.
From someone who is slowly recovering from her own depression, I just want to say, that we know others might not understand what we’re going through, but it’s important for us to know that someone is at least trying.