A weird, energy-sucking flu (Part 2) – How to help someone with depression

So originally I was going to write this all in one place, but then the first part which I wrote  turned out to be a tad longer than anticipated, so it seemed sensible to split the two up. Again, this comes from Ink and Feet, this time from a piece written about helping those with depression.


How to help someone with depression

Before you do anything, take a moment to get you head right. By ‘right’, I mean imagine what it’s like to have depression and to be in that person’s shoes. If you’ve experienced depression before, then you probably have an idea of what it’s like. But if you haven’t, then try to put yourself in their shoes. It’s difficult, but try.

Imagine you wake up one morning, and wonder if you have the flu again. You’re zapped, and even getting out of bed seems hard. You think about the day ahead, all the meetings and appointments and people you have to see, and you wonder how exactly you’re going to do all of that with the energy level you have. Getting out of bed is hard enough. Meetings are impossible.

But, you’re caught by all the work you need to do. You’re already so behind that is seems pointless to start, and even if you had the energy to begin to try and do the mountain of work before you, where do you even start? But if you don’t start working, how are you going to pass your exams? Get your degree? Get a job? A house? Afford to live? It all piles up in your mind so whatever outcome you choose, either trying to work whilst feeling horrific, or staying in bed trying to recover, is going to make you worse. There’s no winning.

By sheer fear and courage alone, you get up. You skip your shower. That’s hard. You shove whatever food requires no energy to make into your mouth (it probably won’t be healthy or nutritious, but that doesn’t matter, just something that provides energy will do), and you get to work.

The hours drag and drag and drag. Everything seems to take forever. It feels like you’re reading words but nothings actually going in. Why did you bother to get up? Why did you choose to make yourself worse? Are you even cut out for this? You feel like a failure. You take dozens of breaks to try and get though it, but you feel guilty for doing that too. How does everyone else manage to work for so long when you can’t focus for more than 10 minutes. And when you finally concede, finally decide that you can’t do it anymore, you feel guilty. Guilty because you should be trying harder. You should push yourself more. But you just can’t face it anymore. You’re zapped, off, your brain is cloudy and you don’t know what to do with yourself now.  You try doing the things you normally do to relax, you flick through your phone, you watch a video on YouTube, but it’s not helping. If you have time to do the things you enjoy then you have time to be doing the work that you feel guilty about postponing yet again. You can’t understand why you’re so exhausted when you’ve barely done anything today. Maybe those people who didn’t understand your mental health, who called you lazy and ignorant, were right. So you go to bed, but even then you’re not free. You’re mind is racing, and you try everything to block out your thoughts. Maybe you listen to music, watch a film, and after a few hours you eventually manage to fall asleep, in the knowledge that it’ll most likely be exactly the same tomorrow. The prospect of it getting better doesn’t even really enter your mind, just the possibility that tomorrow could be much worse.

This keeps up, day after day. For periods in your life, if goes away. But eventually, it comes back. You keep notes. Have guesses and half-baked clues, but you don’t really know what causes it to come back, or what causes it to leave.

Somewhere along the line, after months or maybe even years, you figure out that this particular set of things is called depression, and that makes you feel s***. Depressed people are broken. They’re people who can’t see that it’s sunny outside even when it is. They’re social rejects with clouds over their heads, bringing people down.

You like the people around you. You don’t want to bring them down too because you’ll feel guilty, like you’re a burden and that eventually they’ll tire of you for being so down all the time and leave you. So when depression comes to town, you withdraw. Partly it’s that you don’t have the energy anyway, and partly it’s because you don’t want to drag everyone else down with you, because there’s nothing worse than doing that to the people you love.

At some point though, on a particularly bad spell, you realise you’re stuck. And you don’t know how to get out. So you reach out. You tell someone the truth: “I think I’m feeling a little bit depressed.” It’s a massive understatement, but you don’t want to scare them away. Plus what if you’re wrong. What if it’s not depression and you’re just a terrible human being who can’t be fixed.

That’s what depression is like. And when you can understand that, when you can get your head into that place, is when you can begin to help. And it’s really easy how.

So how should you respond if someone says “I’m have depression.” Show them you understand. That you’re there for them. That you’ll listen. It’s the most comforting thing you can do. Say:

“Oh, geez, that’s got to be so hard. Thank you do much for telling me – I know that was scary and difficult for you. I’m your friend, and I’m here for you. I am going to be right by your side and we will get through this. If you want to share, I’d like to hear what it’s really like (but if you’re not up to it right now then that’s fine too, but I’m here if you ever do want to talk more about it). I’ll listen to it all, even the bits that are really difficult for you to say. What’s today been like?”

And then, just listen. Because it’s quite likely that once they get over that first step of talking to you, it will grow and grow and grow. They’ll gradually be able to tell you more and more, you’ll learn things you never knew they were going through. It’s tough. For both of you. But by listening you are helping. So, so much.

This may seem silly if you’re a very logic-orientated person. “It doesn’t address the root of the problem” you might say. And that’s true. But when someone is in the midst of depression, it’s not the right time to worry about what’s causing this, it’s about getting them through it. It’s like talking about chain-saw safety while you have a severe leg wound. Yes, chainsaw safety is good, but maybe tend to the leg wound first. There are lots of long-term ways you can try and combat depression, like therapy, psychological treatment, medication. But those are long-term solutions, many of which don’t work for every person – there’s no one-size-fits-all way to get rid of depression.

For now, you’re triage. You’re A&E. You’re the immediate response unit.

“But what if I know something that will actually help them?!” you might scream. Like if you have experienced depression yourself and want to share how you got though it. Well, that’s fair enough. But there’s a time and a place for that. If someone’s having a particularly though bought of depression at that moment, now isn’t the time. Save it for later, when they’re not having the a day that’s the worst-of-the-worst, when you’re both in good head spaces to be able to have a conversation about it. When when they are having that bad day, hold back. Wait until they ask “Have you got any ideas how I could take this on?”. That’s your cue. But if they don’t, just carry on listening. Asking how they feel. Show them there’s someone out there who cares about them, because they probably don’t think that there is. Plus, the fact is, it’s highly unlikely you’re an expert in depression, whether you’ve experienced it first hand or not. Everyone’s experience is different, and sometimes what you think will help them won’t.

By simply sitting, asking, and listening, you are giving a person who feels fundamentally disempowered by a weird thing happening to their brain a sense of control back. Treat their life like their car. Only drive when you’ve been asked to.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that keeping all of your great, helpful, well-intentioned ides in you head won’t make you feel any better – you might feel like you’re not doing enough to help them. But you are. You’re helping them massively by doing one very, very, VERY important thing.

The toughest thing about depression is that it is massively, massively isolating. People who struggle with depression typically have nobody they feel they can safely talk to about the monster that’s eating their life.

Imagine it. Pretend that instead of depression, it was a terrible, energy-sucking flu. You can tell everyone you had the energy-sucking flu. You’d get tons of sympathy and understanding. Nobody would think you’re a freak for getting the energy-sucking flu. Energy-sucking flus just happen.

That’s not the case with depression. The stigma is huge, nobody understands, and when people do engage, they’re generally jerks about it. “I don’t know why you have the energy-sucking flu, you have such an awesome dog”…sense makes that does not.

You see, when you’re in a depressive episode, one of the most helpful things is to be able to tell someone. “So, I have this weird energy-sucking flu and I have no idea when it’s leaving and it sucks, and side effects include some really crazy thoughts that I don’t want and have no control over”. It’s helpful to say, and so much more helpful to have heard and be recognised as the full human person you are. Hear them, reply to them. “Wow, that sucks. That energy-sucking flu is the worst. What are the crazy thoughts like?”.

The thing many people who haven’t experienced depression first hand probably don’t realise is this: we know our thoughts are crazy thoughts. We’re more aware of the ridiculousness of the whole thing than anyone we’re talking to – we just can’t do anything about it. There are some days when it’s more difficult to see how crazy these thoughts are than others – those are the days when you just need to listen and not tell someone how they should make themselves better. Having someone just listen when you tell them, “yeah, and sometimes I have these thoughts about jumping in front of trains” (a side note for my parents if they read this, I’ve never had those thoughts, just so you don’t start to panic about me), and both of you acknowledging that those are some crazy crazy thoughts makes the person with depression feel sane.

They are no longer tied to their thoughts. The thoughts are a symptom of the crazy energy-sucking flu, and you know about it too, and seriously. WTF kind of flu is this that gives you crazy thoughts? That’s some BS.

Finally, the thing to realise most of all is that depression itself isn’t actually that bad – it’s the side effects that get you.

It’s the social isolation. The fear. The stigmatisation. The feeling like you’re bringing everyone down. The uncertainty. The crazy thoughts you don’t feel you can tell anyone. The everything else you can’t tell anyone.

But when you do manage to connect to people, really awesome people who want to listen, to understand, to support, to care, to stand next to you as you go through your low points and look at your depression as just a part of you rather than a huge problem that needs to be fixed immediately, something truly wonderful happens:

Depression actually just becomes a weird energy-sucking flu.

You begin to have hope.

You being to think one day you might get better.

You begin to acknowledge that yeah, there’ll be bad days, you need a bit of extra support, but there’ll pass.

You being to feel you can fight this.

Because by being open about it, you can finally tackle it head on. And what’s better, is you’re not doing it alone. You don’t have to hide the bad days from people. You can tell someone you’re having a tough time and realise that yeah, you are, but it will go away because you have friends and family who will do whatever they can to try and help you.

You can fight the side effects. You can begin to feel like yourself again.

So, talk about depression. If you experience it yourself. If you know someone who does. If you’re one of those amazing, wonderful, vital people who supports those who do. Talk. Be open. Don’t whisper about it like it’s a secret. Scream about it from the roof tops. Because then those who are isolated, who might not have had the courage yet to take the scary first step of saying “I think I might be depressed”, might get a step closer to finding their voice. Talk about it like it’s normal. Because it is.

Depression is part of human nature. It’s like a spectrum, in a way. Some of us have it really bad, some of us manage to make it though life without really having to face it. But there’s not one person in the world who can say they will never, ever, ever have to face it themselves, I can promise you that.


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