Few things are more dreadful than seeing someone you love in pain. And this is especially true of depression, which often strikes without warning or reason. When someone breaks a leg or comes down with the flu, people know how to help. Depression, on the other hand, often leaves them bewildered and frightened. After all, when someone you love refuses to get out of bed and cannot stop crying, it takes some getting used to.
If you wish to help, you must first know your enemy. Unfortunately, numerous, stubborn myths surround depression. For a start, it is not the same as unhappiness. Indeed, those who suffer from it often object to the casual way others use the word. As Matt Haig writes in Reasons to Stay Alive, which details the nervous breakdown he suffered in his early twenties, people would never say “oh Alzheimer’s…tell me about it. I get that all the time,” or “yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it isn’t going to help, is it?”, and yet they will say such things to victims of depression.
When someone feels unhappy, they can usually cheer themselves up by watching a favorite comedy show or laying in a hot bath. Depression isn’t like that. On the contrary, the things people normally cherish and enjoy now mean nothing. This is why Hamlet, perhaps the most famous depressed character in literature, describes the experience thus: “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seems to me all the uses of this world.” Think back to when you were a kid. Do you remember looking through a yellow or red candy wrapper and being fascinated by the way it transformed the world into a different color? Well, depressed people feel as though they’re looking through a thick, black wrapper, with everything changed to dreary darkness.
Contradictory though it sounds, depressed people feel both an empty blankness and an agonizing pain. Of course, depression takes many forms. For some, merely rising from their chair and walking across the room demands a tremendous act of will. Others, however, suffer the toxic blend of depression and anxiety. Such people feel both wretched and energized: pacing up and down, clinging to loved ones, talking non-stop etc. And instead of a numb emptiness they experience frantic dread, a sense that some unknown horror is looming just beyond the horizon.
Finally, it is worth adding that depression is very common. Indeed, many of the great figures of history suffered from it. Winston Churchill, for example, was frequently paralyzed by what he nicknamed the “black dog,” as was Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and countless other hugely successful people. And it often has nothing to do with personal circumstances. This needs to be stressed because many people assume their loved one has been made depressed by something – work, disobedient kids, weight gain etc. In fact, it probably has little to do with these. So don’t say, “but what have you got to be depressed about? You have so much going for you!”
Being There and Being Gentle
Above all, be there. Remember, depression is not the same as “feeling a bit down.” You won’t relieve it by making silly jokes or putting on a good film. On the contrary, people would often prefer a little space. The American psychologist William James, who clearly suffered depression himself, likened it to the weather. One day the sun is shining, the next storm clouds gather and the sky darkens. When this happens, all you can do is wait and hope that the sun will reappear. Of course, things have improved since James’ day, and we now have medicines to relieve severe depression. But no matter how it is treated, whether through pills, therapy, dietary changes, or simply grim, stoical endurance, it will take time.
So, while you wait for those clouds to break, just be there. And don’t worry too much about saying or doing the right thing. So long as they know that you love them, your presence will be enough. If you still feel the need to do something, make your gestures simple but sincere. As you walk by the sofa or bed, squeeze their hand or kiss their forehead. Do they want some company? If they do, ask them, softly, if they’d prefer you not to speak – and do not be offended if they reply yes. Love is not revealed in the big, dramatic gestures. You show someone you love them by going out of your way to make them feel better. If the person is a sibling, a parent, or just a friend, leave a bunch of flowers on the doorstep or send them random text messages, something like “thinking of you x.”
And obviously you can help in other, more practical ways. To begin with, be watchful of their diet. Depressed people often lose their appetite, but you must encourage them to eat – and to eat the right things: no more caffeine, sugar, alcohol, or refined carbs. Instead, prepare them meals full of fresh, oily fish; unsalted brazil and walnuts; pumpkin seeds; fresh fruits and vegetables; lean, fresh chicken and turkey; and plenty of water. Next, gently encourage them to come for regular walks, ideally somewhere bright but calm, close to water and trees. And talk, softly, but cheerfully, about trivial pleasures and mundane events.
Tough Love Is No Love
Tough love doesn’t work, certainly not with the depressed. True depression has nothing to do with wallowing in self-pity. Some, hoping to snap the depressed person out of it, will give them an ultimatum, such as “pull yourself together or I’m leaving.” Clumsy attempts such as this usually backfire, however – sometimes disastrously. Maybe you can decide not to feel sorry for yourself or not to focus on the negative, but you cannot decide not to feel depressed – any more than you can decide not to suffer from cancer.
It is also important not to belittle or minimize their pain. Depression is an illness, something over which people have little or no control, something they loathe and yearn to be rid of. Even the sympathetic will say crass things like “oh, you’re just too sensitive,” or “you shouldn’t let people get to you.” Remember, depression is often accompanied by feelings of worthlessness. Indeed, many sufferers literally feel all sense of self-worth drain away, like air escaping from a balloon. Having someone insinuate that their depression is trivial or self-inflicted will only intensify such feelings.
Depression is one of those disorders, like agoraphobia, anorexia, or social anxiety, that bewilders those who’ve never experienced it. And this bewilderment often turns into frustration, which leads in turn to anger. No matter what you do, avoid this. Just because the individual isn’t bruised or bleeding, that does not mean they aren’t in pain. Depression hurts. And no one would choose to feel that way. Angrily telling them to “suck it up” or “act like a man” is not only futile but may actually make them feel worse. Many people want to help but don’t know how. And so they start giving advice instead. But depression is not something people reason themselves into, and it is not something they can reason themselves out of.
Above all, you will need to be strong. Dealing with a depressed person is hard. Not only does it hurt to see someone you love in pain, such pain can be infectious. Just as cheerful, joyful people make you feel better, so the depressed can make you feel worse. Try not to see the world through their eyes. If they say dark and terrible things, it is the depression talking: as Matt Haig writes, “depression is a disease of thoughts.” No magic cure exists – but a smile, a kiss, and a hug would be a good start.