When you have a cold, the guy who sits next to you at work says, “Hey, you sound better.”
If you recently had a baby, your neighbor smiles and asks, “Are you getting any sleep yet?”
If your mom’s chemo has ended, your friends want to know, “What did the doctors say? How’s she doing?”
But what If you’ve spent the last three or four months struggling with not wanting to get out of bed? If you were doing well to get one project out of the way at work, when there are five more to take its place? If there was no joy in hearing your kids’ laughter? If you hadn’t wanted to be touched?
What if you were having a bout of depression?
There aren’t any questions. Generally, people don’t know what to say. Because your illness is mental, it’s as if it can’t be talked about.
So add loneliness — invisibility — to what someone with depression must deal with.
Slowly, maybe with therapy, maybe with medication, someone with depression can begin to feel better. Maybe you managed to start running, although every morning you had to force their feet to hit the pavement. Maybe you started trying to focus on what you had control over, and came up with an active strategy to heal. Maybe you sifted through feelings from old wounds that had never healed. Maybe you cried, worked through anger, kept a journal, or became more mindful.
And your depression begins to lift.
If you suffer from depression cycles, you know it will be back. You have to manage it — watch for the signs of its return.
But for now, it’s better.
It’s hard work to accept and work with depression. You’re trying to use your mind — the part of you that’s not functioning well — to fix itself. It’s a bit like trying to run on a broken leg in order for it to heal. But that’s what you have to do.
Some people have the understanding to support you. Many don’t.
People don’t want to believe that something unforeseen, something they can’t control, can take over their life, and rob them of contentment and pleasure.
Just ask any woman who’s struggled with postpartum depression. She’ll tell you that there is very little to no support for a new mom who’s depressed — who can’t seem to bond with her new baby — who wants to scream — who feels dead inside. Instead, she hears, “Oh, you’re just tired.” Or, “It takes a little time to adjust.” Or, “It’s your hormones raging.”
So add discounting and minimizing to her depression.
Finally, celebrities are talking about PPD openly. Finally. And it seems to be helping raise awareness and acceptance. But we’ve got a long way to go.
Ask someone who discovers they have bipolar illness, and have to learn how to manage mood swings, racing thoughts and seemingly sudden drops into feelings of emptiness and despair. They learn to make sure they get enough sleep, take medication, watch their stress levels, in order to try and manage their illness. What kind of support do they receive? Are they seen as somehow damaged? Less than?
You bet they can be. So add shame to an illness that they never asked for, nor did anything to create.
So how can we all be supportive instead of turning away?
Recently, a blog post about 25 text messages that someone with depression would love to receive went wildly viral on The Mighty — a website geared toward helping people with chronic or rare illnesses of any kind, mental or physical.
We can say things like, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But I’m here to listen.” Simple things really.
We can suspend judgment. We can try to learn. We can confront our own fear of life getting out of control.
You can openly talk about your own depression, your own vulnerabilities, or you can support someone else doing so.
“When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive. We come back to life thinner, paler, weaker … but as survivors. Survivors who don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it. Survivors who wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand. I hope to one day see a sea of people all wearing silver ribbons as a sign that they understand the secret battle, and as a celebration of the victories made each day as we individually pull ourselves up out of our foxholes to see our scars heal, and to remember what the sun looks like.”
It’s an eloquent description of what depression can do to the individual who has it, as well as the people who love them.
Loneliness, invisibility, shame, and discounting don’t have to exist for those with depression or any mental illness.
We can wear those silver ribbons.
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You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”