In many important ways, I liken someone who is deeply depressed to someone who is in a coma. That is to say, when we are deeply depressed, we are not living in ordinary reality, even if we seem to be able to escape into the real world to TRY to fulfill our responsibilities and we seem to you to be awake. It might be easiest to say, only part of us is awake, and that part isn’t functioning all that well at the moment, thank you very much. There’s a thick, dark fog around us as we are trying to find the yellow line to stay on the road. This takes up all our energy and concentration.
I had friends who tried to be there for me, but I felt so worthless and unlovable, I could not receive their love and support as coming to ME, just loved them as loving people. But, restored to sanity, I will never forget their kindness.
I remember I was in this kind of a dissociative state for a long time. I was so lost in the darkness of depression that I missed most details of what was really going on around me. I did not really feel connected to it, so I didn’t react normally. This is sometimes called “tunnel vision” when applied to depression. The tunnel vision also keeps us from seeing options, and from remembering prior happiness or expecting any in the future.
When someone is in a coma, we sit by their bedside, we speak to them of everyday happenings, play music, tell them we love them, tell them we miss them, try to call them back, knowing that at some level they can hear us, even if they cannot respond. We suspend judgment about our friend not responding, knowing they are in an altered state of consciousness. Of course it is easier to do this if your friend is in a coma, because they are immobile, not making decisions or mistakes, not failing to do their job, not hurting your feelings by never returning your call. But your deeply depressed friend is in a sort of a coma-prison of unrelenting darkness, heaviness, that is unrelated to what is going on around them. And if you choose to walk with them through this time, you must be prepared that they may not seem to care. At the same time, your being there, talking about ordinary things, is a ray of light into the darkness, maybe even a lifeline. Because in that state, the thing we want most of all is to not be here on the planet so the pain would go away. Or I did.
It is pointless to ask why your friend is depressed, or “what happened?” I promise we don’t know and we would love to be able to turn a switch and have the lights come back on. I knew I wasn’t doing my best work, no matter how many hours I spent there trying. I knew I was not truly there for my friends or even for my oldest son, then 15, who lived with me during one of the darkest times. He started skipping school, started doing drugs, wearing dark clothing and eye shadow, I didn’t know him. In retrospect, I think in a way he was acting out my depression before my eyes – but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know what to say to him, how to help him. I myself was lost. It is my greatest regret. Fortunately for him, his father in another state was willing to see him through those days and he is a happy, successful married man today.
So, what kinds of things do you need to know?
Our Problems are NOT our Depression – Even if there was a triggering event, such as a divorce or a death, depression is beyond grief, beyond loneliness, beyond failure, although all those may be contributing factors, or objects of our ruminations. Not everyone who has a bout of the flu develops pneumonia. Similarly, our “resistance – or resilience – is down,” so a loss or disappointment turns into something much more serious.
You Can’t Fix Us – Please Don’t Try – While your friend knows he or she is depressed and it is good to mention that you know it too if that doesn’t offend them, you are not there to be their doctor. Asking us to delve into our feelings will likely not be helpful, because even we don’t know “why.” Mostly what we need is just silent support, knowing someone cares, values us for us, is confident we will pull through. If we want to vent, we just need you be an active listener, a witness, not a problem solver. You don’t understand us, and it’s OK, we don’t understand ourselves either.
Self Care – Sorry, being with us when we are deeply depressed can be…well…depressing. We don’t mean to be contagious, really. We can suck up all the energy you will lend us. And it can also make you feel like you are responsible for our wellbeing. This is scary, and let me reassure you, you are NOT responsible for us. You are just letting us know you care. That’s all.
Boundaries – You must take care of yourself with sensible boundaries. So, be sure to take care of yourself first, and have plenty of other healthy activities. You can stay in touch on line – social media, texting, whenever you need a stronger boundary between your world and ours so as not to drown in our sorrows. You may not get a response. Don’t worry, it isn’t you and you don’t need to try harder. Sometimes dealing with other people is just too overwhelming at the moment, still, it’s good to know someone cares. But you losing yourself doesn’t help anyone.
Drama and Help – When we are depressed, typically things do not go so well, so failures in work and relationships tend to build up to make things worse. Try your best not to get involved in the dramas of your friend’s life, even if you have a lot of common friends or even relatives. And remember, your friendship is important, but it cannot substitute for professional help. You could try to find an opening to suggest they speak with their doctor about their condition, to be sure poor physical health isn’t what is dragging them down. Indeed, depression, like every other disease, is a complicated physical disease involving the brain, hormonal balances, and so on.
Depression Can be an Up and Down Kind of Experience – Still, some days are better than others, and if you catch us on a good day, we can even be fun. That does not mean we’re no longer sick, but it is really good to have help noticing what a good day it was – we tend to forget there were good times. Sharing a photo of the good time could help them to remember.
Keep it Light – You are there to be a friend, to provide a short respite, as you would if your friend had any other serious disease…cancer, kidney disease, a heart attack. He or she doesn’t care a whole lot about anything right then, and you are not there to be a burden, so you may want to do something that doesn’t require much in the way of interaction, like watching TV, walking the dog, cooking a meal, playing cards, doing art.
They May be Self-Conscious about Their Appearance, Their Home – We who are depressed are really aware that we’re a mess, our house is a mess, our affairs not attended to, and we like to try to pretend to the world we are OK. This can be part of why we withdraw from you. Let your friend know you know they haven’t been feeling that well and you can handle a little messiness. Stay nonjudgmental and don’t try to clean things up. If something is a health risk, you could ask if it was OK to take care of it so they would not get sick. In our foggy apathy, we may not have noticed or cared that that was even possible.
Suicide – If you think your friend may be contemplating suicide, it’s ok to ask them. I promise they won’t think of it for the first time because you mention it, but this is a secret that needs the light of day. We know that suicide is “wrong,” but when we are very deeply depressed, death looks like the only way to escape. (Part of that Tunnel Vision.) Still, it’s a shameful secret. I didn’t even mention to my therapist that I was suicidal most of the time. She also never asked. She should have. You could have in your wallet a suicide hotline number, or help your friend get to a professional trained to help them. In an emergency, call 911.
I just want to say, no one needs a friend more than someone who can’t return the favor at the moment. There is such stigma around mental illness, it terrified me to think that I was really ill. At the same time, my emotions burdened me unbearably no matter how much I tried to deal with them on my own, but I tried to hide that fact from the world. Of course, just as with addiction, everyone already knew. And to tell the truth, I thought my case was hopeless so what would be the use anyway?. I was just basically flawed and unlovable, I thought, in some way others were not.
I am eternally grateful to Lynn and Carole, who were just gently there for me, though they did not understand. And to Dayla who understood all too well, and had to walk away to protect herself, for letting me know I was loved. Wherever you are now, you were angels in my life and I thank you.