Dr, Vijayshree Patil
How to be a good ally to loved ones fighting depression (Part 2)
Depression can be hard on more than just the person fighting it: partners, family and friends can all be affected.
In Part 1 of this series (read here), I emphasized the importance of self care for caregivers, and suggested what beginner caregivers should do to help.
In Part 2, I offer tips for Novice, Intermediate and Expert caregivers.
Novice: Gently Lend a Hand
After some time, I learned to react aggressively to attempts to use ‘tough love’ on me. I felt horrible about getting angry with my loved ones, but now I know that anger was actually my friend; even though I did not know it then, and could not explain to my parents, it was protecting me from the effects of their incorrect attempts.
But this kind of aggression led to a different kind of problem. It led loved ones to leave me alone when I was down. This was better than being subjected to unsolicited advice or provocations, but it was far from ideal. A person with depression is like someone who has fallen into a hole—we cannot extricate ourselves. Though we do need protection from harm, if that protection means further isolation, recovery can be delayed by years.
Luckily, there are many things other than tough love that loved ones can offer. To think of what you can do, focus on the real problem: that the person is drop-dead exhausted from their non-stop struggle against depression, and in their exhaustion, sees no way out. That is the thing to address: their exhaustion. If you can help reduce the degree to which they are overwhelmed, you will open up space for them to heal themselves.
How to reduce the overwhelm? Here’s a lovely tweet that a fellow warrior (blue salaam to you, A!) shared with me recently:
Ask your loved one what it is they need and/or have been struggling to do, and offer to help. If they’re running out of supplies at home, offer to take them to the store and shop with them, or if they’re not feeling up to even that, go buy them some supplies. If the dishes have piled up, do the dishes. If laundry has piled up, help with that.
Here’s the catch: they won’t tell you they need help. I still feel ashamed when I have to, because during these times I’m already feeling like I am a burden on my loved ones. What tends to help me is to be reminded that I’ve been there for my loved ones many times in the past, and that it is no big deal for them to take up some small tasks.
In this way, you can try and head off some of the arguments people with depression tend to use. They will say, ‘But I don’t see a time when I’ll be able to repay you, because this will last forever.’ Tell them they will get better, and this isn’t about repayment anyway. They will think, ‘Look at me, I am wasting their time.’ Head that off by saying it makes you happy to help out, and will they be so generous as to give you the opportunity to help? If someone says they are happy to do something for me, it is much harder for me to decline what I actually sorely need.
There have been days when I haven’t stepped out of the house even though I wanted to because I had no clean clothes to wear, and doing laundry and stepping out was too much to ask. Anything you can do to take care of the must-dos of our day-to-day lives will help.
Notice how I still haven’t said you should talk to them about depression. You’re still not there yet.
Intermediate: Tell Your Loved Ones They Matter
Depression comes with an impressive feature-set that allows it to cling on to a person. One of the things it is amazing at doing is making people feel entirely worthless.
When I would be depressed, I’d feel like I a total failure. Everything I had achieved in the past would seem meaningless and pointless. In the present, I’d be struggling so much to even eat three meals and take a shower that I’d feel like I was useless now, and would never be of any use to anyone again.
These feelings of worthlessness would make me feel like nobody would care or notice if I vanished. At their worst, they made me feel like the world will actually be a better place if I vanished.
Much of self-worth relies upon what others think of us and our role in their lives. This is what makes tackling feelings of worthlessness a good place for an ally to intervene.
Even if a loved one is not being able to pull their weight right now, and may take a long time to get back to themselves, they are still precious to us. To understand the value of a human life, just imagine your life without them. How much of a hole they would leave, and how impossible it would be to fill that hole. As John Milton wrote in ‘On His Blindness’, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.
So tell your loved one: ‘Even if you do nothing for the rest of your life, the fact that you are there means a great deal to me. The fact that you exist, that you breathe and eat and sleep, that I can see you and talk to you, all of these are more precious than I can say.’ We don’t have to fake this. It’s 100% true. It’s just that the person with depression has lost sight of this. (Thank you, I.D., for regularly reminding me when I forget).
No matter how much depression can constrict someone’s life, no matter how much it can debase a person and reduce them, it cannot in the slightest affect the fundamental value of their humanity. It cannot take away their past, nor erase their future potential.
This can be tricky, so do avoid a common mistake: this is not about making the depressed person feel guilty. You are not saying, ‘How can you not think of the impact your going away would have on my life?’ They have more than enough guilt. Instead, tell them that even right now, at their most depressed, they are precious to you. That even deeply depressed so-and-so is the one you want in your life.
Not too long ago, when depression brought one of its close friends, suicidal ideation, to the party inside my head, a friend told me (I’m paraphrasing), ‘Dude, you have already done so much, you don’t have to do a single thing more. You deserve a long life based on just what you’ve done so far. You can retire right now, rest on your laurels, grow fat, or whatever else you wish. You are that precious to me.’ (thank you, R). It makes a big difference every time, and one never stops needing to hear it.
Expert: Be a Safe Space
Depression, at the heart of it, is not a mental ‘illness’. Instead, the real problem is not knowing how to process negative emotions and trauma. Depression is just a symptom of this underlying problem. Since this symptom itself is so severe, it can become an issue in its own right, and this is why we refer to depression as a mental ‘illness’. But at this advanced level of allyship, it is important to recognize the true cause of these symptoms.
As a society, we are very bad at understanding emotions. Indeed, we have been taught all the worst ways of dealing with them. We have been taught to distrust emotions and favour our intellect over our feelings. When emotions get strong, we are taught to suppress them so that they don’t affect our lives. This training starts very early, in our homes, and is reinforced at school and at work.
For some of us, whose emotions are not as powerful, this is not as much of a problem. But for those of us who feel more keenly, the pile of suppressed emotion grows rapidly, until our psyche cannot take it anymore. Depression is really our minds telling us: business as usual cannot go on. You need to do something about all this.
Why is emotion suppressed and denied? It is because something we have learnt is completely ass backwards. We have learnt that if we give voice to an emotion, if we say something like ‘I think I am worthless and don’t deserve to live’, or ‘I will never get better’, then we will believe it more. That giving an irrational emotional thought voice will make it more real.
The exact opposite is true. Think of saying something in anger. Sure, anger makes us say and do things we do not mean, and we must apologize profusely, but often, having said something rude, we find the emotion loses its grip over us. We return to ourselves, and feel less possessed, and even wonder where those words came from.
When a person is dealing with deep depression, the most amazing thing another human being can do for them is tell them: ‘You can tell me anything. In this safe space, nothing you say will have any consequences on the outside world. Whatever you say is valid; even your most irrational thought hides a kernel of truth, hides something about what you are experiencing right now, or have experienced in the past. In this safe space between us, where there is no judgment and no dismissal, you can take out these thoughts and feelings, air them, and see what they have to tell you.’
I deeply value therapy, and encourage anyone struggling with even basic depression to try many therapists till they find one they connect with. But equally, I feel that in our world we have forgotten how to fundamentally be there for each other. A good friend can make the work of a therapist much easier. If you have it in your heart, be that good friend.
Because you know your loved one deserves it. Because survivors of mental illness are badass and tough as nails. Because you know that when they get their mojo back, they will add more to your life and to the world than you ever had to give them.
Guest Blog Credit : Partha P. Chakrabartty
Partha P. Chakrabartty is an independent journalist and columnist published at Firstpost.com, The Wire, and HT Mint.