It seems like a lot of people have been suffering recently – I’ve heard friends, coworkers and strangers on the subway describe everything from a major case of the ‘blahs’ to serious periods of depression. It’s not unusual to feel cranky this time of year – the holidays are a distant memory, spring seems too far away, and we’re sick of piling on all the coats and scarves and boots every day just to brave the elements.
For some, there are relatively quick fixes – a good vitamin D supplement, the ever more popular Netflix binge, or even (for those who can afford to do so), a week away to somewhere warm and sunny. Then there are the hearty types among you who choose to embrace all that winter offers – ‘If you can’t beat it, join it!’ you cry out as you courageously leap on your toboggan and head down the hill for the eleventh time.
And then there are those for whom no amount of sun, vitamins or snowball fights can keep our moods from getting, and staying, dark. Even if they haven’t ‘officially’ told you there’s a problem, it’s that person you know whose mood doesn’t seem to lift, regardless of the weather…it could be a senior, a newcomer, or just someone who seems to be struggling.
So I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions to those of you who want to help that person, but don’t know what to do. First, let me start with a disclaimer – I am not a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or other ‘ist’, and I advise you not to try to be either. (Unless you actually are, in which case well done!) It’s tempting to try to ‘fix’ or cure the people we love, but your most important role is likely to provide stable, consistent support, and encouragement in finding professional help.
During my toughest times, the incredible people in my life don’t cure my depression, but they do help to keep me from sinking further. Knowing they’re there and concerned occasionally takes me out of my head, even when I’m not able to thank them, or fully show my gratitude. It’s those moments when I realize just how hard it is for them, too.
And so it is with appreciation for those of you who love us through the dark days that I offer some honest advice that comes from my own experiences. Here goes…
- Don’t feel you have to have ‘the answer’, or that you can fix us
In fact, assume you don’t and can’t. Hearing people say, ‘You just need a day off’, or ‘I’ve got a great joke that’ll cheer you up!’, or ‘No wonder you’re feeling blue with this weather’, can sometimes make me feel like no one really understands what I’m going through. I would much rather have someone just take my hand and grit through the awkward silence. I have a friend who will just gently rub my back to let me know she’s there, and I find that really soothing.
Parker Palmer is an author, educator, and incredibly wise man who has had his own journey with depression (my two favourite Parker Palmer books are A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. If you’re not up to reading, you can find some clips of his talks on youtube). He talks about how people’s well-meaning attempts to cheer him up often made him feel worse because he either couldn’t believe what they were saying, or couldn’t do anything about it anyway. He also suggests that when we make these attempts to ‘help’, we are essentially trying to let ourselves off the hook…at least we tried. It is much harder, he observes, to just walk with someone, to be with them while they’re in pain. But that’s often what we really need.
- Just be there, and keep being there…and listen
I know this isn’t easy – to watch someone close to you suffer, and not try to make it better. It can mean fighting every impulse in your body to help. I do it myself when someone I love is in distress – it’s a natural instinct to want things to be better.
But here’s the thing…we – at least some of us – pretty much know you can’t fix us; we also know you want to. What we really need is for you to see us where we are – to really hear us and acknowledge the truth we’re telling you, even if it’s disturbing – without necessarily trying to solve the problem. I’m using bold so this is an important bit here…I’m not talking about someone who is in immediate danger of harming themselves or you or someone else – there are times when you may feel you have to intervene and call for help. I’m just saying that for those of us who function (to some degree) with depression or other mental illness on a day-to-day basis, we all experience, express and confront it differently. We need to you realize that, and hear what we tell you.
- It’s important to ask us how we feel and tell us how you feel
By all means, tell us it’s hard for you to see us in pain, tell us you love us and you wish you could kick its ass. Because whether we can show it or not, the fact that you’re sticking with us through all this is a good thing. If you’re not sure what to do or say, ask us what you can do to help. Tell us when you notice something has changed. Confront us gently and honestly if you’re worried things are getting worse, or if we say or do something that scares you.
- But please, please, please – don’t tell us it’s just the weather.