I’ve dealt with depression for much of my life, and while it has had a huge effect on how I view myself, it has also affected many of my relationships. Because my depression fluctuates, my friends and family often don’t know what version of me they’re getting (no, I’m not bipolar — the severity of my depression just ebbs and flows, depending on a number of factors). This is especially true lately, as I’ve started taking medication that helps with depression. Medication is different for everyone, and while the medication that I take has mostly been amazing, occasionally I experience dips in my mood that are inexplicable — that is, without discernible triggers. It’s frustrating for me, and for those who care for me. They often want to help me feel better but don’t know where to start, and some of their attempts are misguided.
I’ve been on both sides of this relationship — I also have friends who deal with depression, and I know what it’s like to just love someone so much that you want to make them feel better, yet nothing you say seems to help. It can be frustrating, confusing, and you can even feel hurt. Thats why I thought it would be helpful to talk about some things that I know to be true about depression from my own experiences — while these things may not be true for everyone, many are true for me, and I’ve found that explaining my feelings to loved ones has infinitely improved our communication.
Sometimes, it’s about something. Sometimes, it’s for no reason at all.
Sometimes, I can put a name on my depression. I can say, “This go-around, it started when….” and trace the episode back to a specific event when things started to fall apart. Sometimes, I can’t. Depression happens for a lot of reasons, and these factors dance delicately with each other. Some of them exist outside of the body, and are situational; these are things like whether or not we are happy at work, our standing within society, how others treat us for reasons we cannot control, how our relationships are going, whether we are financially stable, etc.. Some of these factors happen inside the body, and have to do with things like hormones, and chemical imbalances, and how we feel about our bodies in general, and how the things we consume affect our brains, and whether we do or don’t take medication, and whether we have or haven’t been taking that medication how we are supposed to. Our lives are complicated. Depression, as a concept, is complicated. Living with depression is ever more complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to make sense of. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to, however — it’s why many of us see therapists, and try to figure out when our depression first started, where it hooked its roots into our consciousness. While understanding the shape of our own personal depression might not make it completely go away, it can at least feel empowering, and may also be the key to uncovering a more accurate treatment plan.
Just because we don’t have the energy to respond doesn’t mean we want you to stop reaching out.
There are so many times when I’m really depressed that I keep my phone on, even though I know I won’t answer anyone. I keep my phone on because I want to get text messages and emails — I want to know people are thinking of me, because it makes me feel even a little bit better — even though I don’t have the energy to respond. I don’t want to answer the question of what I’m doing right now (lying in bed under the covers, on a Saturday night), and I can’t think of any interesting questions to send back in return. But on those days, it means something to me just to be thought of in the first place, even if it’s not something I can offer in return.
Even the smallest things can be hard to do when we’re really “in it.”
It can be really hard to do even the smallest tasks when you’re really “in it”— including sending simple text message, like I mentioned above. It can be hard to brush our teeth. To shower. To make tea. To do all the things that the logical part of you knows will make you feel better, but for some reason, you can’t get your body to move an inch. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t dealt with depression before, because the only comparable thing is extreme muscle soreness, and this is not the same. People often don’t understand what it’s like to just be physically unable to move, because depression has placed heavy weights on all your limbs, and your brain cannot shake them. But it’s a true thing, and accepting that it’s the reality will make it easier to help your friends with depression and understand what they’re going through.
We may or may not take meds.
And ultimately, this is our decision. Medication is not a clear-cut issue — some people do really well on medication, and some people don’t. A friend and I recently talked about the same exact medication (one that has been a lifesaver for me) that she absolutely hated. So not only are all people’s experiences with depression different, all bodies interact with medications to treat it differently. This is a choice you should (if you’re open to it and ready, of course) be willing to listen to your friend’s worries about and help them talk through, but you should also try to refrain from pressing your own preference on them. It’s a highly personal decision that each individual should make on their own, ultimately with a medical professional.
Please don’t tell us to get over it.
Depression is not something we can just get over. Believe me, if it were, we would have already. It’s something that takes care, treatment, time, and may never fully be gone from an individual’s life. Using the phrase “get over it” simply serves to invalidate your friend’s feelings, rather than give them hope. It’s not at all helpful, and may result in them pushing you away more than bringing them closer to you.
Find hope in our good days, but don’t assume it means we are “cured.”
Like I said earlier, friends often don’t know what they’re going to get — this means that sometimes I show up and I’m really happy! This is great, and hopeful. This is a reason to be happy, and it likely means that I’m doing great right now and that my medication has been working, and that things in my life have been going well. But it’s also not a reason to assume that I’m “cured” of my depression. I don’t say this to be a downer — I only say this because assuming that good days mean that depression is cured only sets us all up for disappointment and resentment down the line. I’ve been there before, in a previous relationship, and I was made to feel guilty when I fell back into depression after a particularly good period. It’s bad news for everyone. Enjoy it when times are good, but also remain aware of the possibility that depression is an ongoing struggle.
Just because something worked for one person, it doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
I’ve had a lot of things recommended to me over the years. Exercise. Essential oils. A night out with friends. Specific medications. Getting a dog (okay, this one actually worked for me). People recommend things that have worked for them or for friends of theirs, and they do so with the best intentions, but the thing is, these methods don’t always work for everyone. It can be tiring to be constantly given advice that you either don’t want, or know won’t work for you (because you’ve already tried it, or don’t have the energy to try it, or whatever), and you just have to keep saying, “Thank you.” Don’t assume that people want advice — sometimes people only want to be told that you’re there for them.
We’re glad you’re still sticking with us — but we’re also scared you’re going to leave.
When you have depression, it can be really hard to see yourself in a positive light. It follows, then, that it can be hard to see why others see you in a positive light. When I’ve been at my lowest points, it’s been hard to see why anyone wants to stick by my side — even my family, and my family and I are very close. So, while we are glad that you are sticking with us, we are also scared you’ll leave.
We are grateful that you’re trying to help — really.
When I’m depressed and people are trying to make me feel better in ways that don’t quite work, while I appreciate the intention, I can often seem ungrateful — it’s hard to muster up enthusiasm or energy for other people during a time when you barely have energy for yourself. If you’re trying to make your friend feel better by inviting them places, offering to do things for or with them, trying to talk to them about things you used to love to chat about, or offering suggestions that you think may be helpful, only to be met with no response (or even a cold response), it doesn’t necessarily mean that your friend isn’t listening. It might just mean that they’re using the very little energy they have on other things right now — trying to keep it together for work, to take care of their kids or pets or spouses if they have them, or simply just trying to stay on their feet. It may sound dramatic to people who have never felt depressed, and yes — from the outside, it can look ungrateful — but I promise, we hear you and we know you care, even if we’re currently not in a place to reciprocate those feelings.