I’m a big fan of the belief that there are a million ways to feel about another person. There’s not just romantic, platonic, and familial love, there are a million types, and you can feel many contradictory things toward the same person at any given time – you’d probably be crazy not to.
Similarly, there are a million reactions to the news that a person you love, or just know, is clinically depressed. I’ll write about stigma soon. In the meantime, let’s talk a little about some of the most common responses we get.
Dismissal – This is probably the most famous. “You’re just blue. I’ve been blue. I got over it. So can you, and you should. Why aren’t you over it already?” It makes you feel even lonelier. It’s hard to take your condition seriously when people dismiss it. It’s hard to hold your truth above theirs.
Respectful Distance – This can be the worst! “Oh, you’re depressed? That sounds terrible. I’ll give you some space until you feel better.” I need help! Don’t leave me alone out here! Do you know what my brain fills in when you’re silent? LOTS of terrible things, that’s what! I need you around to contradict those bad thoughts. Please?
Anger – “Oh you’re depressed? Well, guess what? Life is hard, did you ever think of that? Do you see me whining about it?” Ouch.
Know-it-All – This is common from people who’ve been diagnosed with depression in the past. In trying to make you feel better, they’ll tell you about their recovery, as if every (or any) aspect of their past struggle is relevant to your current one. Or they’ll act as though you can fast forward to their level of recovery, because that’s where they are right now. It’s a more thoughtful and well intentioned type of dismissal, but it can still hurt.
Weird Advice Givers – I love it when people act like being depressed means you’ve never faced difficulty before. “You know what I do when I face [insert random challenge here]? I just work really hard for a weak and then I feel really accomplished and I feel better.” Huh? First of all, that’s a terrible idea for me right now. Secondly, what are you talking about? The worst part in this one is again the dismissal. You feel like they’re not hearing you, or they don’t believe you, and that your struggles are normal and easily overcome. I took it one more painful step. I took it (and sometimes still take it) to mean that I no longer had any credibility with my peer group, which made me think that now that I was recognized as sick, people thought I was stupid.
Responding to the news that someone is depressed is really hard. People feel scared, guilty, sad, defensive. They wonder what it means for them and can expect you to be able to tell them. People who would be perfectly comfortable helping you out if you had diabetes or Crohn’s disease act like you’re embarking on a strange new journey and all they can do is watch.
You’re not crazy. This shit is really hard. Having to manage other people’s responses can encourage your urge to isolate when what you need is company and support. And there’s so much fodder for rumination here! I could argue with people’s responses in my head for years! It’s freaking hard.
They’re not perfect. Chances are that they’d LOVE to help, they just don’t know how. I mean, take another look at the list above and put yourself in their shoes. Yikes! So many ways to fuck up! And none of this is consistent. Sometimes advice from someone who’s been there is really helpful, for example.
For me, the difference between a reaction that makes me sad and scared and a reaction that makes me feel less alone is just one thing: listening. Even if their reaction is anger, if I know that they’ve heard what I’m saying, I feel a little better.
In the meantime, remember, your experience of your condition is valid.
What did I leave out? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org