The truth is, I am depressed as fuck right now. I am not ashamed to admit it. I think it is important to admit it, because many of you know what that is like. I just keep breathing and taking it one moment at a time. That’s all anyone can do. Moods and feelings are like the weather. A storm rolls in, and you get cold, so you get a blanket and supplies. You care for yourself in the weather you find yourself in. You don’t always have to know why the weather is doing what it is, you just have to respond to it. The good news is that weather is always temporary. You don’t know if the storm will be a an hour, a day or a week, but you know it is going to pass. The sky will shift and eventually there will be sunshine again. Then you will navigate that weather, try to soak up the sun or stay in the shade, whatever feels right. We cannot control the weather but we can prepare and respond to it, and we can take comfort in the fact that it is not permanent.
Depression is a hot sticky mess of heavy thick shit. Anxiety is its best friend. In my opinion these two are flip sides of the very same nervous system coin. Depression is the hypoarousal part of the nervous system trying to regulate. It’s the part where just getting out of bed to pee feels like building a rocket ship to make it to the moon. It’s the part where your insides feel numb and you lose interest or care in basically everything, even your name is meaningless. Motivation can go fuck itself. The glass is not only half empty but you just let it fall to the ground and break without even thinking of picking up the pieces. The pieces cut your feet and you shrug at he bloody mess and continue to stare into the abyss. Depression sucks.
Depression is not just feeling sad. Pop-psychology terms annoy me. When someone cleans their house and say they went “OCD,” or when they are moody for a day and say, “I’m so bi-polar,” my hackles go up. This perpetuates stigma and mis-understanding for very legit mental health issues and illness. When a friend has a bad week and says, “I’m so depressed,” I know they mean they are sad, or unmotivated, or feel shitty. I get it. Depression is more than that. Depression is not just a mood, it’s a state that lingers for weeks on end, it is an illness.
People have lots and lots of opinions on why we have mood disorders like anxiety and depression. People also often think there needs to be a reason, an event, something that has been done or not done to cause depression. Here is the gods honest truth: nobody really knows exactly why some people suffer with depression, and it can happen to anyone at anytime with no reason. That doesn’t mean that there are not some good guesses out there, that some life events precipitate it, that there aren’t intersecting biological and environmental components that can create it. It just means that to some extent, we just have it and do the best we can with it. I have high hopes that in the next 10-20 years we may understand it better with science and technology. I also wonder sometimes how a person doesn’t experience a certain amount of depression and anxiety if they are just paying attention to the world at large. It’s a bewildering and fucked up mix of beauty and pain out there.
This post is focusing on what we can do to help depression. The first thing we need to do is to recognize when we have it. If you have been struggling with feelings of helplessness, sadness, fatigue, emptiness, irritability, lack of motivation and apathy or any other criteria for more than a couple of weeks: GO TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL. Mental health counseling or psychotherapy is there to help. They can offer framework and skills to cope, as well as help resource you to someone who can offer medication, supplements or other physical modalities like therapeutic yoga or acupuncture. In my experience both the body and the mind need to be supported with mood disorders of any kind.
Often times, we are not the ones to recognize it first. It is our loved ones who notice we no longer take bike rides with them, laugh at dinner, or are more irritable on the road and have no patience. One of the things about mental illness is that it distorts our thinking and perspective, so it is often hard to see when we are in it. When we know someone who is struggling one of the first things we can say is what we notice their mood and behavior with empathy. You can say, “I notice you don’t want to go out anymore, that you don’t seem interested in our usual conversations and topics, you seem down. Do you want to talk about it? Do you want to just hang out? I’m here.”
Then your job is to listen and validate. It is so tempting to want to give advice, to offer suggestions on how to feel better, to analyze all the reasons why. If someone ASKS for this, by all means, give it your best shot. If they don’t ask for your suggestion then your primary job is empathy. Sympathy is a vibe of, “poor you, I feel so bad for you.” It’s an angle of looking at someone as if they are different. It is disconnecting. Empathy is a vibe of, “that sucks, I can relate, I am here.” It’s an angle of looking at someone with belonging. It’s not about saying, “I know EXACTLY how you feel.” Nobody knows EXACTLY how you feel. It’s saying, “I have had similar experiences and feelings, I am with you. I am not trying to turn away from or change your experience, I want to be here with you.”
Empathy has compassion to it. Compassion is having an understanding of the situation with loving kindness and regard. Compassion is not judgmental. Compassion doesn’t mean you need to agree or condone, it just means you are trying to get it. Empathy is you trying to feel it. Together they are the cornerstones of connection. Depression, more than other mood issues is about disconnection. There is a quality of being disconnected or at a distance from everyone and everything, including yourself. So the best thing we can do for someone when they feel this way is to offer our presence and connection.
This isn’t about imposing how we want to connect. It isn’t about, “Hey, you feel depressed, you should connect with me on this fun thing I love to cheer you up!” It’s more like, “Hey you feel depressed, want me to come over and watch movies all day with you? Maybe if you feel up to it we can take a short walk, and if not, I will bring snacks.” The connection is about meeting a person right where they are at with a big hug either literally or metaphorically. Always ask if someone wants a hug first.
This seems like a simple thing to do, it is also not easy. It is easy to want to change how a person feels, especially when they are feeling low. You also can’t change how someone feels, ever. You can influence them, you can collaborate with them, you can support them, you cannot change them. In the process of being with someone who doesn’t feel well, you also have to learn to be with your own discomfort. You have to befriend your own feelings of helplessness with them. It takes patience and a lot of slow deep breathing. It takes stamina, grit and heart to sit with someone who is suffering and just be. You have to walk the talk and have compassion for your experience as well. No one likes to see their loved one suffer, no one likes to not have all the answers or be in the unknown. Depression requires you to do all of this.
The irony is that depression shifts most when a person feels accepted right where they are at. When they don’t feel the pressure of change. Depression eases when someone knows that you love them as is, that you have the internal strength and space to hold them and their experience without taking it personally or running from it. That’s when they might take you up on that walk, or laugh at a joke, because you are not asking them to meet an expectation. You are saying, “Show up as you are, I’m here and I care.” That’s true help folks. As I stated above, depression can feel like a storm that has rolled in. A storm where you don’t get a specific forecast, you don’t know how long it’s there for. When someone shows up with a blanket and tea, we find momentary respite in the storm. We find tiny comforts although it’s cold, wet and dark. That’s the presence we can offer to someone struggling, we can hold their hand and weather the storm with them.
In the process of being with someone struggling with mental health issues, you can ask if they want suggestions or help. If they do, make sure one of them is supporting them in finding a professional to speak with. I cannot stress this enough. When looking for a good therapist be sure that they are someone your loved one can really vibe with. The relationship is the foundation of the work and you want there to be good rapport. Also make sure that the therapist is trained and specializes in mood disorders and has some kind of body-based therapeutic techniques along with the usual cognitive-behavoiral approaches. Bonus points for any kind of mindfulness training. Be well out there. May we all sail in peace.