|Why do all depression pictures look like this?|
Fast forward fifteen years.
It’s dark outside—raining—and I’m in bed with my spouse. I’m huddling a pillow, capillaries broken around my eyes. He stares blankly at the bookcase at the foot of the bed, the Elizabeth Moon novel he’d been reading half-opened on his chest.
“I just wish you’d stop telling me how to fix it,” he says.
I still said the wrong words.
There’s no article about how to talk to a depressed person if you’ve been depressed yourself. We assume that if we’ve had depression, we already know how to handle it in someone else. Which would make sense, except that depression and anxiety not only destroy your memory, but are also highly personal. Most of us will get depression or anxiety, and most of us will still manage to say the same stupid crap to people with similar mental health issues.
So here’s a list. Another list, yes—on what I learned when, having had depression myself, I became the caretaker of someone else with depression.
First off. Depressed people are…
1. Valid Without the Special Words
“You realize right now that what you’re saying is the depression talking,” I said to my spouse. “It isn’t true.”
“It still feels true.”
Humanity privileges articulation. We laud our poets, our rhetoricians, our thespians. There’s a sense that if you say something well, it deserves to be considered on the sheer merit of your speech, rather than the merit of the idea. If you drop some powerful words, you’ll have people cheering along with you, even those who might not have initially agreed. But how often do we have the words? Do you remember the first time you fell in love? The day you came out? Did you begin with an enormous vocabulary and the practice of persuasion? Chances are you didn’t.
It’s the same with mental illness. Most of us start off assuming we’ll never be part of that club. Most of us are shocked when we realize it exists within us too. And most of us will struggle for years to find the right words, not only to express how we feel, but to get the help and compassion we need.
|"Do you feel depressed?" she asked. "How did you know!" he said.|
Respect the struggle, respect that facehugger point of view. When speaking people with depression, assure them of the validity of their feelings.
This means don’t obfuscate. Don’t list your symptoms alongside theirs as if it’s a contest. “You had panic attacks in the car? I had them in the bathtub!” “You don’t get suicidal thoughts? Ha! Man, you have it easy.” Don’t analyze the symptoms and pronounce that they’re either not bad enough to be depression, or that everyone has a mental illness according to the DMV. Don’t attack their support network as better than yours. In short,
2. Don’t Compare
Now granted, you’re going to compare, because it is certain the other person’s mental illness struggle will have been different from yours. Mental illness visits different people differently. Every week, I Skype with two other women who have had panic disorder and agoraphobia. None of us have the same triggers, the same kind of panic. So why would we have the same treatments?
3. Treatments Vary
|Like a dozen punches to the head|
When is it not fine? When you insist on behalf of someone else. I understand that sometimes, refusing to take meds looks like a person with a broken leg refusing a cast. But it isn't like that with depression and anxiety. Meds are not a Band-Aid, and there’s no one-size-fits all. We don't even really know why they work, in the case of SSRIs. We also know that many times, drugs fail. So...
4. Respect Agency
Also, do be aware that there is a percentage of people, despite all the therapy and drugs in the world, who will never get better. And even more people who will get better, only to relapse repeatedly throughout life. Saying that you got through it is wonderful: it’s great to know it can be done. But insisting they can get better too? It isn’t necessarily going to happen. Harping on your cure will only be rubbing your health in their faces. It’ll be like looking over a cliff at the climbers, telling them about how you made it to the top. It’s great to know people can get there, can get better, but not everyone can use your rope.
5. Nix the Artist Halo
|WHAT? BUT YOU CAN'T BE AN ARTIST IF YOU DON'T HAVE DEPRESSION!|
Did it make me feel special? Yes. Did it help me get better? No.
Despite all of the comfort it gives to people to say that they have superpowers, that they're exceptional, the fact of the matter is that the artist halo justifies treatment avoidance. Moreover, to many people with a mental health issue, mentioning the artist halo is the same thing as giving up, as silencing their pain. You’re not only saying that the wound is meant to be there, but that the sufferer will not be an artist if it is gone. Don't. Just don't.
6. And Don’t Compliment the Fakery
Another take on the artist halo is the adaptation obfuscation: “But you don’t seem ill.” In other words, Congratulations! I don’t care if you’re having suicidal ideation this very moment, because you’re arrived! You are the best faker in the universe! You’re underscoring the fact that the mentally ill person is indeed alone in the universe, because apparently she can walk around with her mind screaming death, and no one will know. You’re suggesting that as long as other people don’t notice, she shouldn’t talk about it. That she’s a hypochondriac, because she doesn’t look sick.
And of course sick people should look sick, right?
Telling someone they doesn’t look sick is playing the comparison game, too. You’re saying that if someone isn’t obviously sick, that sickness isn’t real. That it has to show in a way you’ll recognize before you’ll allow it to exist. Toxic, toxic thing to say.
Unsure of what to say, now? Well that’s fine, because it’s far more important to…
7. Listen. Need I repeat this? LISTEN.
When you have defeated depression and anxiety, you might feel like an expert. And, compared to the rest of the population, you are. But it is not your duty to give unsolicited advice. Remember (as I have forgotten) to separate the expression of hurt and the help request. Don’t presume that because someone confides they are depressed to you, that they’ve asked you to tell them what to do. What they’re asking for is validation, compassion, and you to notice their pain.
Go back to that hard place, the place before your wellness, the time when you were in a quagmire of fear and loathing, watching people walk by you as if your sinking didn’t matter.
Notice, my fellow former mental illnesses sufferers. Notice.
With love to Timothy Phin, Joely Black, Red, Foxicity, Catherine Mardula, and Joyce Chng.