What Not to Say to a Depression Sufferer

I’ve been suffering from a dysfunctional cocktail of brain chemicals, otherwise known as depression, since I was young.  Periodically I experience severe episodes of depression that devastate my mood and render me barely functional.  They make me feel like I’m walking through fog in the dark, and a couple of times these downswings have caused me to believe that ending my life is the best option for improving myself.  Of course that has never actually been true, but in the midst of the depression bout, I believe all the negative, hopeless messages my brain gives me.  I’ve lived through many of these episodes, and as soon as I make the appropriate medication tweaks and/or lifestyle changes and the chemical cocktail party in my brain is balanced, all those negative messages I believed seem absurd.

However, even knowing that the bastard in my brain saying things like “Your life is meaningless,” “You’re not worth all that effort to stay alive every day,” and “It will never get better,” is lying, even intellectually knowing exactly what is happening when I enter a low period is not enough to make the feelings go away.  You know how the definition of idiocy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?  Well, surviving depression is like having the same thing happen to you over and over and being completely baffled and overwhelmed by it every time.  Now that I’ve been through a few rounds, I know when I must force myself to complete normal tasks that, in my weakened state seem completely meaningless and overwhelming, ie. brushing my teeth, talking to people, eating, putting on a bra and leaving my house at least once a day, etc.

These episodes can last days or weeks or months, and I know it is difficult for the people around me to deal with as well.  The people who love me want to help me climb out of my funk but often feel powerless and frustrated.  The people who like me when I’m happy and are annoyed when I’m not try to talk me out of my depression so I’ll become easy to be around again.  The people who don’t know me just think I’m stuck up, shy, retarded, or stoned.  I know depression affects my relationship with the people around me.  It affects almost everything I do, so there’s no way to avoid that.  For that reason I can appreciate the good intentions behind a lot of the unsolicited advice and unhelpful comments people offer me in my darkest times.  Most of the time, though, the comments are unintentionally hurtful; some of them unintentionally hilarious.  It is a very human condition to try and connect with people in times of need by whatever means available to us.  That’s why people who find out I’m diabetic say enthusiastic things like, “Oh yeah, my grandma died of that!” or “My uncle is diabetic and he had to have his foot cut off!  Looks like you haven’t lost a foot yet!”  It’s their way of saying, “Yes, I have experienced that too, we are connected!” (or, more accurately, “Yes, I also know that word!”)  People try, and I appreciate that.  I have the same experiences with depression, but because depression is so different for everyone who experiences it, and the people who haven’t experienced true depression at all can’t begin to understand it, the comments and attempts to connect tend to be more irrelevant or even harmful.

I know what it’s like to feel blue: my shoulder hurts sometimes.  But, y’know, I have to be mature about it and force myself to face my responsibilities anyway.  It’s what adults do.

My uncle told me this once while I was living with him during one of my most severe bouts with depression.  Most days getting out of bed and making sure I ate something was the absolute maximum that I was able to accomplish.  I was living in an unfamiliar city, I couldn’t keep a job, and I was having trouble starting a social life.  I was in therapy and on meds, but I was also suicidal.  Though I didn’t talk about that with my family, I did quietly consider my options every night.  If only I had the wherewithal to realize that I was just being immature, that if I would have just gotten my shit together and acted like an adult, I wouldn’t have had to go through all that!  Occasional shoulder pain and existence-crushing brain chemical imbalance are pretty much exactly the same thing anyway.

You’re so smart, and you have these talents that other people would kill for, and you’re just throwing your life away. Get off your ass and do something with all of that!

Talk about a backhanded complement! This was a pep talk from someone I was dating  when a low period hit me out of nowhere and lasted a few weeks.  At least he thought it was motivational.  Pep talks don’t imply that the motivatee’s life is meaningless, though.  In those days it took improbable strength, the kind that a non-depressed person would use for, say, public speaking at the White House on an unfamiliar subject, naked, to get out of bed and go to work every day.  On top of that, I was using nonexistent to try and have a social life and find some sort of balance in my life.  Hearing that I wasn’t doing enough and throwing my life away was like the ping of another tether holding me above the sea of hopelessness breaking.  I didn’t date this asshole for very long, and I didn’t really hold his opinion in very high regard.  Comments like this only prove that the person saying them does not understand depression.  They should be very thankful that they don’t.

Cheer up, a lot of people have it a lot worse than you.

I have heard this one from a lot of people.  First of all, don’t fucking tell me to cheer up.  You shouldn’t tell a person suffering from depression, “Cheer up!” any more than you should tell a person with a broken leg, “Just unbreak it!”  My mood is not within my control.  I cannot choose to be depressed any more than I can choose to have green eyes.  The things that usually make me happy are dark and colorless through my depressed eyes, no matter how much I wish I could change that.  Secondly, I get it; someone being better or worse off than I am is purely a matter of perspective.  Depression has nothing to do with perspective.  If your brain chemicals are not transmitting properly, perspective is meaningless.  You might as well tell me, “Cheer up, you might want to die, but a lot of people are already dead, so…”  If you really want me to feel better about someone else having a shitty life, you might want to adjust your own perspective a bit as well.

So what can you do for your friends/loved ones/awkward strangers suffering from a bad depression episode?  The hardest thing in the world to do: nothing.  You can’t fix us unless you have a prescription pad or lobotomy equipment (kidding!) (That won’t fix us.)  We appreciate your understanding when you’re able to give it to us, and we accept that that’s not always possible.  Just love us, and try not to give up on us.  Tell us our lives have meaning – most of us know that but just can’t feel it at the moment.  Listen to us when we’re ready to talk about it, and be slow to dole out advice.  When we have our good days, enjoy our time together and give us some happy memories to think about when our world (and brain) comes crashing down on us again.  There’s no need to spend time telling us how great it is that we’re not depressed anymore.  That just reminds us that the next dark cloud might be waiting around the corner, just out of sight.  Thank you for loving us when we’re not able to love ourselves.

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About Allison Anarchy

I write because I have to
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