Chances are that at some point a friend or relative will suffer a clinical depression. Well-meaning loved ones don’t always know how to deal with this difficult situation. That was something I learned during my own depression seven years ago.
The worst mistake some people make is to suggest that the depressed person is emotionally weak. This only adds insult to injury. True, I was beaten down and showed little gusto or optimism, because I was suffering from a debilitating disease. As I came to understand, hanging in there while in the grip of an illness characterized by feelings of helplessness and despair requires genuine strength.
Friendly urgings to “snap out of it” were to no avail. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling down or blue. People can snap out of the blues; no one snaps out of a depression. But sometimes, it’s difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish between the two. Fortunately, my wife was smart enough to realize as much and to encourage me to seek professional help.
While some friends and family treated me as if I were fine, others had the opposite reaction and had nothing to do to with me. This was understandable. Not only was I no fun to be around, I made it clear I wasn’t interested in company. Still, a note or phone message always gave me a small lift. It’s always nice to hear that someone cares about you, even if you aren’t ready to speak to or see them.
My wife’s non-stop sense of caring really helped me through a very difficult time. But sometimes, she identified so much with my pain that she stopped living her own life. That only made me feel worse. She helped me more when she went to a concert or out with her friends. The pleasure she derived from her favorite pursuits reminded me that life can be fun and would be again for me once I was well.
Like many people in a depression, I often felt as if my life was over; it never hurt to be reminded that depressions are self-limiting and that virtually all depressed people re-cover. But statements like, “What are you depressed about?” or “Life is great,” were futile. Depression does not result from rational thoughts that can be dispelled through logic. When people acted as though they could talk me out of my depression, they only increased my sense of helplessness.
The same was true when people demanded or expected too much. This, too, was understandable. Since I normally play full-court basketball for hours on end, when I complained that relatively minor physical tasks were an impossible burden, people thought I was just feeling sorry for myself. They didn’t realize that depression can be so physically and mentally debilitating that even the simplest tasks become overwhelming. Their efforts to get me to take on more than I was ready for only made me feel worse.
What helped me most during my depression was a combination of sympathy, optimism, and understanding. Of course, the wonderful support of my wife and others did not make my depression instantly disappear. It probably didn’t even shorten it. What it did do was make my ordeal more bearable. And for people in a great deal of pain, every little bit helps.
Alan Hirsch is a freelance writer living in Oneonta, NY.