How not to handle your depressed friends

2/3 people who have anxiety also have depression. I don't. It's actually very difficult for a lot of people to accept that, although they often go hand in hand, anxiety and depression are totally different conditions. 

Anxiety and depression

The best analogy I can come up with for what anxiety feels like would be that you're consistently running away from the bad guy - sometimes he's too close for comfort, sometimes you can barely see him in the distance; but he's always there and you're always looking for the next hiding spot or escape route. You could be chilling out on the sofa with some chocolate pudding and there's a thud on the window or a creak on the stairs and you have to mentally get up and start running again. 

I don't know what it's like to live with depression, but Sarah likens it to a weight. She says it's like trying to get up with someone sat on your chest, or trying to swim with something tied to your feet, like everything is slowed down and the effort is getting you nowhere. 

While anxiety is alertness, shock and fear; depression is sluggishness, fog and sadness.

Some of the symptoms do cross over, particularly the physical ones, maybe that's why people bundle anxiety and depression together so much. A person living with feelings of nausea, aches and pains, difficulty falling asleep and a chronic lack of energy could be living with clinical depression OR anxiety (or both, or neither). Maybe they're talked about together all the time because they're among the most common types of mental illness? I honestly couldn't tell you. All I can say is that our triggers, the way we describe our conditions and the way they manifest couldn't be more different. 

"Depressed people"

I've talked about the frustration that I feel at being 'diagnosed' by strangers on the internet before, so I don't want to dwell on the subject too much - but I have wondered whether my annoyance at these labels I've been assigned by randoms online has contributed to my relationship with depression as a whole. 

I find talking to depressed people incredibly difficult. 

Weird huh? That's a really difficult thing for me to admit, especially as an empath. 

Now obviously I don't think there is anything wrong a person because they have depression. I don't think it makes them any worse as a friend either (my best friend and soulmate in the whole world, Sarah, has depression and I couldn't love her more). I know that depression isn't a sign of weakness, or selfishness or laziness or all those other horrible things that are regularly used as proverbial sticks to bash the mentally ill with. 

I actually have so much admiration and respect for people who are able to fight with the black dog every day. It certainly doesn't look easy from the outside and, as someone who has had periods of suicidal thoughts in the past, I'm continually impressed by the determination to survive that people living with depression show time and time again. I'm not sure I would be as strong. 

I want to understand. I want to be able to help. I want desperately to be able to say the right thing to the people who are probably in one of the worst places they've ever been. But despite my intentions, I find it incredibly difficult to communicate with someone when they are feeling at their most depressed. 

Now, I've obviously Googled it a million times. I'm not an idiot. I'm not struggling to communicate through lack of trying, it's actually because I find it incredibly draining. Now, before you hate me - please take a moment to listen to me try to convince you (and myself) that this is OK. 

what i can do

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Noticing when someone isn't feeling themselves is easy to me. I'm quite intuitive when it comes to other people (I notice little shifts in behaviour, thanks anxiety) and I am always forthcoming in letting someone know that I am there if they want to talk and to offer help. This is particularly true if the person living with depression is my friend, but is also true when it comes to interacting with strangers. 

I've learned that being positive is the best approach, that talking in circles about feelings often feeds the depression and makes it worse. Mostly, I've learned to ask "What do you need from me?" and "What can I do to help?" because everyone's different and there's no one size fits all when it comes to mental illness. 

I can assume the role of Distracting Spice, Funny Spice, Cuddling Spice or Crying Spice if that's what the situation calls for. I couldn't even begin to count the amount of nights I've held Sarah while she cries - in the same way that I couldn't begin to count the amount of phone calls she's had to make on my behalf when my anxiety has got too much. The problems start to happen for me when I start to try to make things better. 

 

where i fuck up

Perhaps (definitely) because mum died while I was trying to save her, I have a tendency to try to save other people in order to make up for it. Sometimes I lie awake at night trying to think of something I can do for my friend-in-need to improve their situation or even just to make them smile, but this process is a dangerous and damaging one of me and here's why. 

Through no fault of theirs, often someone living with depression will feel worthless and unable to fix themselves and the things that I say to them will be appreciated but rejected. 

An example of this might be: 

Me: You've got this. 
Them: I haven't. I can't do anything.
Me: What can I do to help?
Them: I don't know. Nobody Cares.
Me: I care. 
Them:
Me: Please remember this is temporary.
Them: I've been depressed for years, how is it temporary?
Me: You'll get through this, I promise. 
Them: I don't think I can. 

What happens to me in this kind of conversation, is I become increasingly hard on myself. My inability to "fix" things for my friend and make them feel OK again, reminds me that I couldn't save my mum and the more problems someone throws at me, the more determined I am to find solutions. I can't step back and appreciate that they might need a friend to listen to them and I become harder and harder on myself for not being a good enough person to keep my friend alive.

It's the chink in my armour that stopped me from recognising my past relationship as an abusive one until I was way too deep into it, I genuinely thought I was helping him and protecting him, while he was beating the shit out of me. Which brings me to an important lesson that I've had to learn a REALLY hard way. 

 

you don't have to set yourself on fire to keep the people around you warm.

 

why it's ok to say the wrong thing. 

It's OK if you can't always find the perfect response to your friend who's living with depression - this is true for anyone, but it's particularly true if you're ill yourself. We don't choose our friends because we think that they are perfect, we choose our friends because there is something warm and magical and loyal about them. We grow to love our friends for who they are, not the role that they play in our lives or our recovery. 

I'm not always going to get it right - I have my own needs, I have my own triggers, I need to set boundaries in our relationship in order to keep myself healthy too. I'm incredibly sensitive to perceived negativity, and while I know that this may be one of your symptoms that doesn't make it affect me any less. But it does allow me to remember that I value you and our friendship. 

While I will always try to be as supportive as I can, there will be times when I am unable to be there as much as I'd want to. 

 

to mental health advocates

(Bloggers, Journalists, Campaigners, Podcasters, Film-makers, Comedians, Public Speakers, Protesters, YouTubers, Digital Champions and everyone in between)

Being a mental health advocate doesn't need to mean that you forgo your own needs to support the people you're standing up for. If you're doing this to raise awareness, then please know that being yourself and sharing your story is enough. 

This movement is for you as much as it is for anyone else. 

No, there isn't enough treatment. No, it isn't fair that people are having to go without. But the responsibility to make up for that doesn't fall on your shoulders. 

There ARE people out there who have the power to decide whether or not the system gets more funding. And every time you share your story, there's another chance that those people might hear us. And there's an even bigger chance that someone somewhere might hear it and realise that they are not alone. 

You are the voices that I admire, please don't set yourself on fire to keep the people around you warm. 

 

To anyone supporting a friend through mental illness

Your friend will understand that you are human and that you can't always give the perfect answer. Sometimes you might not be able to give an answer at all - that really is OK. The fact that you haven't given up on them and that you're still trying IS ENOUGH. Even if they're too ill to tell you that right now, there will come a time when you know just how much your effort is appreciated. 

I love my friends for who they are, not for what they can give me. 

Please don't be afraid to set boundaries in your friendship - believe me; boundaries are there to protect you both. 

Just don't set anyone on fire - that's the moral of this ramble.