I remember some years ago that I was in hospital for investigations on an ‘unknown‘ illness, which turned out to be glandular fever. During my week on the ward for various test there were two patients who stood out. Both were admitted late at night having tried to end their own life with a medicines overdose. However, the next day after their admission, they were both up & about, helping the nursing staff & other patients; eloquently spoken, courteous & apparently full of life. It was a real shock to me as they were the opposite of what I had been taught & expected.
Zoom forward a few years & I was in the grip of serious depressive illness myself. It seemed to come from nowhere, struck like a cobra & floored me for nearly 2 years. My recovery was slow & painful, something that could not have happened without the help of a skilled counsellor & a lot of determination on my part.
Thankfully, since that time I have only had a few temporary trips back the edge of & occasionally into the abyss, one of those being just the last couple of days. Looking at my behaviour, just like the two patients on my hospital ward, it would probably have been difficult to tell how frightening life & my own thoughts were.
And that set me thinking about what others see vs what I see.
Here are a few personal insights which I hope, if you struggle with depressive illness you will recognise & realise that you are not alone & if you don’t suffer from depression, will be able to recognise why the happy, smiling person in front of you may be going through their own personal Hell.
As you will see, many of these are inter-related but I hope you get the picture.
- We protect others before protecting our self: Relationships are critical to us & we will often do anything to keep them open. That often means that we will hide people from our true pain so we don’t crush them. We hide certain facts from others, not because we are deceitful but because we fear rejection & isolation when they ‘discover the real me.’ Depressed people can be great at seeing how to make others happy because we are so intimately aware of what makes us sad.
- We may smile on the outside whilst we cry on the inside: Depressed people are extremely vulnerable, especially when we are letting others into our inner world of turmoil. Few people can handle being around someone ‘who is miserable all of the time’ so the depressed person will often try to compensate (if they have the energy) by being friendly: partly because it gives us hope that people will listen & partly because we are scared stiff that we will lose yet another person who could have become a friend. We are excellent at smoke & mirrors but please realise that it is (in our mind at least) for your good.
- External confidence & crippling self-doubt can walk hand-in-hand: People often look at what I have achieved & what I can do & ask, ‘What have you got to be depressed about?‘ My answer is, what I have achieved & what I can do are simply evidence of the drive & potential that is within me, but I am not my title, qualifications or abilities: I am a human being & as such, relationships, opinions & basic friendship are critical to me functioning properly. Like anyone else, my security is a complex mixture of factors but at its foundation is the knowledge that I matter: to someone. There are days when having ‘achieved so much‘ counts for nothing in my world & I just want to know that I am loved. So, as happened yesterday when two lovely friends independently sent me encouragement, my world began to turn the right way up & life began to feel good again.
- Little things matter: The two friends who changed my world yesterday did NOT have to do anything. They could have assumed someone else would do something or say something, but they didn’t. They took action & somethings small as ‘It all changed when you arrived‘ & ‘Believe in yourself‘ were catalysts to change that was so quick it was quite overwhelming. Depressed people rarely ask for anything; they are usually too afraid to do so. People around us can make a huge impact by actions that take less than a minute to do. Just as the tongue can be destructive, so it can bring life.
- We sometimes have to be alone yet live in fear of loneliness: I was talking online to a friend struggling with depression this last week & was struck by her honesty when she said, ‘I think you’ll get it, but at the moment I just need to be alone.’ Therein lies the paradox: the most dangerous phase for most depressed people is when we are alone with or thoughts. That is the silent battle which can drive some to call time on their life (or situation). Yet, being with other people can be just too much to handle. If we ask you for a bit of space, please don’t take it personally: we love you but just now, need to be alone.
- We fear being listened to because we fear being judged: The most devastating experience is when a depressed person take the risk & opens up to someone, only to have that person not be able to handle what we are saying & walk away. I think most of us who struggle with the illness have experienced that. Sometimes it is because we so want to trust people that we miss the signs that others may not be ready or able to handle what we share & sometimes it just happens. 17-Years ago, in the midst of my depression & other circumstances I destroyed three lives by my actions (no I didn’t kill anyone) but the guilt of that time still haunts me & still haunts others. I am still judged today on what I did then & I can still judge myself for what I did then too, leading to another round of staring into the abyss. Those of us struggling with the illness can be hard enough on ourselves; please be gentle but honest.
- We still have the capacity to love, just not always ourself: Love, along with forgiveness, is probably the most important healing element for any situation. Some depressed people can really struggle with showing love; others show it abundantly. The hardest part is that we can rarely show love towards ourself when our mind is racing away with its thoughts & telling us the lies that we often believe. Loving a depressed person can be very hard because we don’t always know how to receive it & yet we so desperately want it & need it. Just like the first drops of rain falling in the desert are rapidly absorbed & disappear, it is only when the rain persists that the real fruit is seen & the barren desert is covered with new flowers & life. Please don’t give up on us: it can be a long, sometimes seemingly fruitless haul, but please trust me, it can be the difference between pain & gladness, fear & joy, life & death to those of us who receive it.
So what can you do to help?
Please listen, listen & listen. Sometimes all a depressed person needs is an ear that will hear & a mouth that will not open to give an opinion. If someone takes the risk of opening-up to you, please take the time to respect that. What you hear may shock you, perhaps even frighten you but the act of ‘getting stuff out of our head‘ is so important in starting healing & understanding.
Please be honest enough to say that you can’t help if you can’t. This isn’t a get-out clause but it is important to acknowledge where you can & cannot help, upfront. Know your boundaries & limits & operate within them. You will be so much happier & so will the other person.
Please don’t promise something you cannot deliver, even with the best intentions. Many depressed people have a history of meeting others with good intentions who then can’t deliver. That takes its toll, compounding pain & problems.
Please be prepared for the unexpected. This is often the hardest one! It is not uncommon for someone struggling with life to say things like ‘feeling like ending it all,’ ‘wanted to hurt myself or make myself pay,‘ ‘I felt so alone that I didn’t know what to do.’ These don’t mean that the person was actually serious about doing them (if they were, statistics tell us that they probably would have done it & not been there to tell you these things). This is obviously a difficult area as one is potentially moving into the need for professional help. If you are worried, being honest & telling the person they may need professional help can be your best response. At least you are clearly demonstrating that you care.
Thank you, as always for reading my meanderings. I am always happy to answer questions & respond to your comments, publicly & privately.
Take care until next time …