It has been two months since I started this blog, and I am truly humbled by the response it has received. WordPress.com tells me I have had nearly 500 visitors and, statistically, Sunshine Spoils Milk appears to be growing every day. But it is the conversations and not the numbers that have affected me most. I have had friends reach out to me to tell me how proud they are of me, bringing attention not only to mental illness but doing so in a fairly personal and not-so-flattering manner. Family members, who knew nothing of my suffering, have offered support, and complete strangers have thanked me. Complete strangers have told me my words mattered; my words made a difference in their lives.
I’m not often at a loss for words but moments like this leave me in awe. Moments like this remind me why I survived a suicide attempt thirteen years ago. (I was lucky, yes, but there was also a reason.) Moments like this remind me why these diseases have become my proverbial “cross to bear.” Moments like this remind me why I am alive.
If you asked me this time last year what my favorite color was I couldn’t tell you. I would have said orange—in homage to Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind—but knowing what I liked, and even what I loved, was completely foreign to me. I knew life only in extremes: sad or not sad, angry or not angry. To be alive was to survive, simple as that.
When I started this blog my intention was two-fold: I wanted to create a space to help those suffering, to help others realize they are not alone, and I wanted to create writing which was compelling and gave a personal voice to a clinical problem—and which gave family and friends tools they might not otherwise have (to help them feel less helpless). And today’s blog is for you, the individuals who support someone struggling.
Depression does not affect the sufferer alone, as anyone who has a friend or family member affected by this disease can attest to. Let me be clear: Depression affects the depressed individual all day, every day—even “good” days are dictated by this disease—but depression is a family illness. To say my husband has suffered as a result of my depression would be an understatement. My illness has permeated every aspect of our relationship, but the truth is that every relationship I’ve ever had, be it romantic or platonic, has suffered. For that I feel guilty, but the guilt doesn’t last long. Thanks to my disease the guilt quickly turns to anger and eventually sadness. I withdraw for fear of hurting others, which makes my illness worse. And so goes the kinked and rusty swing of my life, as it has for 15 years and likely will for 15 more.
That said, it is a misconception that someone suffering from depression is always morose, crying, or sad. Sure, there are days of my life which are like that, but you won’t see me on those days. On those days I hide beneath the covers. On those days I peer at the world through the slates between my tightly closed Venetian blinds.
There are many times I want to talk but simply do not know what to say. (If I do not understand what is wrong with me how can I possibly convey that to someone else.)
There are many days I am a shell of myself, nothing more than a shadow fading at sunset, but how do I tell you that? How do I convey that I feel like I am slipping away? Would it make sense if I told you food had lost its flavor or colors their distinguishing tones? Doesn’t that just sound crazy? (It does; I wrote it—I feel it—and it still sounds insane.)
Here’s the irony: I suffer from depression and know the nature of this illness. I know I cannot bring someone else “back from the edge,” yet I try. We all do. We all want to help. The problem is most of us—myself included—do not know how.
So here is what I find most helpful. Here is what other’s have done for me which has made a difference:
- Listen. Most of the time those of us who suffer from depression do not know what to say, or how say it. Depression is illogical. It clouds thoughts and actually changes your thinking patterns. What we say often seems foreign to someone not suffering from depression, and we know that. We do not want you to save us (in fact, we know you can’t); we just want you to help us in that moment. But how? Listen. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, but in that moment we only need an ear. We may hope for advice or inspiration but we need to get something out. We need to know we are heard. We need to be reminded we matter and are loved. I know this seems so simple but true listening can make all the difference when you are in the grips of a depressive episode.
- Ask “How are you/How are you doing?” This seems ridiculous, too easy perhaps, but think for a moment: How many conversations do you have everyday without asking how someone you love is? You may talk to them about something you saw on the news or the weather but how often do you stop and say “How are you?” Text, email, phone call.: The method doesn’t matter what matters is the question and the intention because sometimes the sufferer needs to hear those three words before they can find the strength to reach out and say “I’m not okay.” (And, from personal experience, this question has saved my life.)
- Connect through contact. A hug, a rub on the back, a held hand: sometimes all it takes is a little human contact.
I realize these points are hardly earth shattering, so below are some additional suggestions from the University of Michigan’s “Depression Tool Kit,” specifically designed for family and friends of those suffering:
- Acknowledge what you’re dealing with. Depression is not simply a “bad mood” or a passing case of “the blues.” Depression is a real illness. It is difficult and frustrating disorder and affects not only the individual, but everyone who cares about him/her. It will take a significant effort on the part of the patient and the family to recover from the impact of depression.
- Cultivate a “we’re in this together” attitude. A person who is struggling with depression can feel completely alone. In fact, every person in the family can feel isolated by the presence of depression. Fostering a partnership with the depressed person confirms that you intend to work together to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead.
- Find better ways to communicate and negotiate. While addressing your own needs, help the person who is depressed speak up for his/her own needs as well. You may want to refer to books or articles for tips on improving communication, dealing with anger, building patience, etc. A counselor or someone outside of the family may be able to help everyone build better communications skills.
- Keep emotions from overwhelming the situation. Emotions are an expected part of daily life for every family. But it’s important to keep emotions from growing too intense or interfering too frequently, contributing to a destructive chain of events. For example, when one family member nags or complains, another may grow angry and withdraw. Although these actions and reactions may be understandable, they are nonetheless not helpful. Rather than bottling up feelings until they eventually explode, look for ways to express emotions without resorting to criticism or hostility.
- Discuss, plan and execute good things. Talk with the person who is depressed about things you might do together that would be enjoyable as a couple or as a family. Remember that it’s the thought behind the gesture – not its size – that’s important. Taking a walk or seeing a movie can provide a needed respite and provide pleasure for everyone involved.
Thank you all for your support. For more information, visit depression.toolkit.org.