Befriending Someone Who Is Deeply Depressed

woman_depression_by_sarahtsunami-CCNCBefriending someone who is deeply depressed is not for the faint of heart.

In many important ways, I liken someone who is deeply depressed to someone who is in a coma. That is to say, when we are deeply depressed, we are not living in ordinary reality, with ordinary consciousness, even if we are TRYING REALLY HARD to fulfill our responsibilities and we seem to you to be awake. We are NOT. It might be clearer to say, only part of us is awake, and that part isn’t functioning all that well at the moment, thank you very much.

There’s a dark fog around us, a veil between us and the world, and we are trying our best to see the yellow line in the middle of the metaphorical road to stay on the road.  We want more than anything to see that line so we can succeed in life.  This takes up all our energy and concentration.  It’s a state of dissociation, in clinical terms.  It puts us way behind the starting line every morning, compared to everyone else.

I remember I was in this kind of a dissociative state for a long time – years even, off and on.  I was so lost in the dark cloud of depression that I missed much of the detail of what was really going on around me, and so I didn’t react as expected.  This is sometimes called “tunnel vision” when applied to depression.   Think of the Dementors in the Harry Potter movies, which were J.K. Rawlings’ representations of her own depression, in order to understand how what I call the Dragon of Depression tries to steal our mind and how hard we have to fight against it.  And, it’s, well, distracting to say the least.

I had friends who tried to be there for me, but I felt so worthless and unlovable – not BAD like I had misbehaved, just mysteriously flawed somehow – that I could not receive their love and support as coming to ME. I just loved them as loving people.  After all, no one loved unlovable me, hadn’t I proven it to myself over and over?  Sadly, I deeply believed this.   I thought all the things that were going wrong in my life had something to do with my character, you see.  I didn’t know I was ill, that the odds were stacked against me because of my brain chemistry and my nervous system –  or that it could get better.

And their friendship really did lighten the load a great deal.  I will never forget their kindness. I’m certain some days their friendship kept me alive so my children would not have to suffer the trauma of a mother who committed suicide to escape the unrelenting despair.  And think of me as a spineless coward.  Although I thought about suicide, unbidden, many days, I was very motivated not to hurt my children, who didn’t know what was wrong with me.  Well, neither did I.  I thankfully didn’t understand then how my depression was affecting them, because it would have just proved my lack of worth. People believe sometimes their family would be better off without them.  So glad I found a better way out of the pain. I am one of the lucky ones.

Your deeply depressed friend or family member is in a sort of a coma-prison of unrelenting darkness,

Dementor sucking life out of Harry

Dementor sucking life out of Harry

heavinessemotional pain, that is unrelated -or only marginally related – to what is going on around them. Our “coma” is invisible, even to us. We’re still in there, somewhere and the REAL us is watching all this go on in utter disbelief. It is pointless to ask why your friend is depressed, or “what happened?”  I promise we don’t know ourselves, and we would love more than anything to be able to turn a switch and have the lights come back on.  And if you choose to walk with your friend through this time, you must be prepared that they may not seem to care if you are there or not. It’s not you. It’s that the Dementors, the Dragons of Depression they are fighting are taking all their energy.  At the same time, your being there, talking about ordinary things, is a ray of light into the darkness, maybe even a lifeline.  Because in that state, the thing we want most is to not be here on the planet – so we could actually sleep – so the pain would go away.

When someone is in a coma, we sit by their bedside, and speak to them of everyday happenings, hoping they will hear. We  play music, we tell them we love them, we tell them we miss them, we try to call them back, knowing that at some level they can hear us, even if they cannot respond.  We suspend judgment about them, knowing they are in an altered state of consciousness.  Of course that is easier to do this if your friend is in a medical coma, because they are immobile – not making decisions or mistakes – not failing to do their job – not hurting your feelings by never returning your call… but this is a good attitude to adopt.

Any benign distraction that asks nothing in return is a blessing. So, what kinds of things do you need to know if you want to be a friend?

  1. Our “Problems” are NOT our Depression –  Even if there was a triggering event, such as a divorce or a death, depression is WAY beyond grief, beyond loneliness, beyond failure, something completely different – although all those may be triggering factors to our underlying illness or objects of our ruminations.  Not everyone who has a bout of the flu (viral)  develops (bacterial) pneumonia and not everyone who has a big loss develops depression.  Evidently, our “resistance is down,” or our  “resilience is low,’ so our loss triggers something much more serious and, yes, life-threatening.
    Then the problems we create because of our depression (not because of our character) only make things worse, – but those problems are  NOT THE PROBLEM.  Of course, we don’t know it.  We focus on our life problems, believing they somehow prove our utter worthlessness, never understanding the real problem -the Dragon of Depression is gnawing on us from the inside like a cancer. Depression is an illness, no different than diabetes or heart disease or cancer is.  We didn’t cause it, and by ourselves, we really honestly can not just “snap out of it.”  But we can get better with professional help.
  2. You Can’t Fix Us – Please Don’t Try –  While your friend knows he or she is in pain, they may not realize they have a treatable illness –  and it is OK to mention that they seem really depressed if that doesn’t offend them, but you are NOT there to be their doctor.  Asking us to delve into our feelings will likely not be helpful, because even we don’t know “why.  We would be talking about the life problems caused by our illness, and only getting more confused.  Mostly what we need is just silent support, knowing someone cares, values us,  is confident we will pull through and provides respite through activities.  If we want to vent, we just need you be an active listener, a witness, not a problem solver.  Remember, the problem we are discussing is not the problem, it is a symptom of the real problem – depression.  You don’t understand us, you can’t fix us and it’s OK, we can’t understand or fix ourselves either.
  3. Your Own Self Care and Boundaries Are Very Important– Sorry, being with us when we are deeply depressed can be…well…depressing. We don’t mean to be contagious, really. We can suck up all your energy.  And we can also make you feel like you are responsible for our wellbeing. This is scary, and let me reassure you, you are NOT responsible for us. You are just letting us know you care. That’s all. Boundary! So, be sure to take care of yourself first, and have plenty of other healthy activities.  You can stay in touch on line if you want – social media, texting, tweeting when you want to check in but need a stronger boundary between your world and ours.  You may not get a response.  Don’t worry, it isn’t you.  Sometimes dealing with other people is just too overwhelming at the moment while fighting the Dragon. It’s comforting to know though even then that someone cares.
  4. We May be Self-Conscious about Our Appearance, Our Home – We who are depressed are really aware that we’re a mess, our house is a mess, our affairs not attended to, but since we like to try to pretend to the world we are OK,  we might not want you to see the mess.  This can be part of why we withdraw from you.  Let your friend know you know they haven’t been feeling that well and you can handle a little messiness.  Stay nonjudgmental and don’t try to clean things up. If something is an actual health risk, you could ask if it was OK to take care of it so they would not get sick.  In our fog, we may not have noticed or cared that that was even possible.
  5. Keep it Light – You are there to be a friend, to provide a short respite, just as you would if your friend had any other serious disease…cancer, kidney disease, a heart attack, a stroke.  We don’t care a whole lot about anything right then – sorry –  and our pain and our dramas keep us overly self-involved – and you are not there to be a burden, so you may want to do something that doesn’t require much in the way of interaction, like watching TV, walking the dog, cooking a meal together,  going to a movie, playing a game, doing art or making music together if that works.
  6. DramaWhen we are depressed, typically things do not go so well, so failures in work and relationships tend to build up to make things worse. There is always drama, try  your best not to get involved in it, even if you have a lot of common friends or even relatives. And remember, your friendship is important, but it cannot substitute for professional help.  You could try to find an opening to suggest we speak with our doctor about our condition, to be sure poor physical health isn’t what is dragging us down. Indeed, depression is a complicated physical disease involving the brain, the nervous system, hormonal balances, and so on. There really IS something physically wrong that would show upon a brain scan.  You just can’t see it.
  7. FamilyThis is hardest of all to face. There are support groups for children of alcoholics, there should be support groups for children and spouses and friends of depressed people. My children were deeply affected by my disease, although I didn’t understand it the time, since I didn’t know I was sick.  And my husbands got tired of me crying. I thought I was being a good and responsible mother/spouse.  Not very much fun to be around though, I can see now.  Uptight. And missing in action in important ways.  For example, I was not “there” for my oldest son, then 15, who started drinking and doing drugs, skipping school, wearing dark clothing and eye shadow, I didn’t know him any more. Today I think perhaps we are mirrors to each other, more than any other members of our family. I didn’t know what to say to him, how to help him, I was terrified for him. And mad at him for misbehaving. Now, I think in a way he was acting out my depression before my very eyes – but I didn’t connect his behavior to mine because…well, I thought I was being a good parent.  Fortunately for him, his father in another state was ho e during the day (I worked) and willing to see him through those days. He has a great life today after some troubled years.  His brother had already left home to live with his dad, which had broken my heart. He had experienced me as too needy, he says now, and had thought he had needed to take care of me – which was not his job. I thought I was taking good care of him and we were very close. Oh well.
    If you are a family member of someone who is deeply depressed, please be willing to understand how your loved one’s depression has affected you, so you can take care of yourself and not pass the wounds on.  But please also be willing to understand also that Depression is not our Identity or our Character – something is or was “eating” at *(feasting on) the person we really are that is beyond our control. Please pray for our recovery as you would if we had cancer and know that recovery is difficult but possible.
  8. Depression Can be an Up and Down, Episodic Kind of Experience –  When we are in a full-blown depressive episode, we are as I have briefly described.  Still, some days and months are better than others, and if you catch us on a good day, we can even have fun, be fun.  It’s one of the things that keeps us from understanding we are ill.  We seem to come around for a time and it seems like everything is OK. That does not mean we’re no longer sick – the Dragon of Depression is perhaps just taking a nap – but it is really good for us to have help noticing what a good day or period of time it was – because when the Dragon is feasting, we are forced (by our lizard brain) to forget there were EVER good times or ever could be again. That’s what makes us feel hopeless.  Sharing  photos of the good times, maybe planning more, could help you both remember.
  9. Suicide – If you think your friend may be contemplating suicide, it’s ok to ask them.  I promise they won’t think of it for the first time because you mention it, and this is a secret that needs the light of day.  We know that suicide is “wrong,” but when we are very deeply depressed, death looks like peace and the only possible way to escape unrelenting agony.  believe me, we are trying EVERYTHING we can think of.  Still, “suicidal ideation” is a shameful secret. I didn’t even mention to my therapist that I was suicidal most of the time.  She never asked either –  we spoke about my “problems” but not my problem, because I didn’t know.  You could have in your wallet a suicide hotline number, or help your friend get to a professional trained to help them if you get concerned. It will help just to have unveiled the secret. Yes, you should tell someone, perhaps their doctor, don’t carry that burden alone.
    Believe me, no one takes action towards suicide without years of willfully and stubbornly NOT acting.  We are not weak, we are strong beyond your understanding to keep battling this illness and still participating in life – work, family, etc. But our tunnel vision keeps us from seeing our options. If you love someone who is depressed and are able to provide a lifeline of hope, God bless you and thank you. But if that someone finally succumbs to their disease, that will never be your fault, any more than if they died of cancer; it will be the Dragon of Depression winning out over your friend in a deeply personal battle that never involved you.  Just know you provided some measure of relief during a truly awful time in their lives and on their behalf, I thank you.
  10. Stigma – I just want to say, no one needs a friend more than someone who can’t return the favor at the moment.  There is such stigma around mental illness, we may scare you off as we have so many others.  It terrified me when i finally faced that I was really mentally ill (there I SAID it), in fact it was years before I admitted to myself something was wrong with me beyond what must be my shortcomings of character or will.  After all, I was a therapist, and things like that didn’t happen to me.  At the same time, my emotions burdened me unbearably no matter how much I tried to deal with them on my own, but I tried to hide them from the world.  Not to burden or bore you.  And, well, the stigma.  “Fine, yes I’m fine, how are you?” Of course, like with addiction, everyone ELSE already knew.  And to tell the truth, I thought my case was hopeless so what would be the use anyway?.  I was just basically flawed and unlovable, I thought, in some way others were not and i anted to leave the planet. When I checked into the hospital I told them I knew they couldn’t help me. The intake worker just said something like, “well I hope we can,” and kept filling out the papers.
  11. Gratitude – I am eternally grateful to Lynn and Carol, who were just gently there for me, though they did not understand.  And to Dayla who understood all too well, and had to walk away to protect herself, for letting me know I was loved and that I was walking way too close to the abyss for her comfort.  Wherever you are now, you were angels in my life and I thank you.
Grandma Gerry

Grandma Gerry

If you recognize yourself in these words, especially if you suffer thoughts of suicide or acts of self-harm, please don’t wait to get help.  If you are close to taking an action to harm yourself, please call an emergency line, call a hotline, call the fire department, and get yourself to a safe place.  Forget you have to work tomorrow and other excuses for inaction.  I did and I am forever grateful for both inpatient and outpatient treatment. Good luck in your recovery and be patient and gentle with yourself.  It took me at least five years before I was secure in my recovery and I always am aware I could relapse.

If you recognize your friend or family member, I hope something I have shared here helps you to understand what is going on with them, so you can suspend judgments about them and just walk beside them if you feel like it when you are in a good place yourself, to let them know someone cares and they are not as totally alone as they think.

I posted this many months ago on another blog, but I just want to share it again in the event it reaches someone new. And I would love to hear from you if you identify with anything I said.   hugs, gerry


5 thoughts on “Befriending Someone Who Is Deeply Depressed

  1. This is an excellent post that I wish I could have read earlier in the year when a family member fell into a clinical depression which he did not survive. It is so easy to make all the mistakes you talk about. I would just make one additional point. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there cannot also be a physiological disorder at the same time which is completely independent of the depression. Unfortunately, once someone is diagnosed as clinically depressed all symptoms tend to be seen through the prism of the depression, for example, a loss of appetite. This makes it very easy to overlook serious medical conditions that would otherwise have been easily diagnosed.


    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Malcolm, and I am so sorry about your brother. I can see what you are saying although I would have said “ANOTHER” physiological condition. I will keep that point in mind for future posts. Thanks, too for the follow. best, gerry


  2. Great opening. When we are imbalanced in any way, all we hear is our own voice (screaming need). We can’t hear others. So the (physically, emotionally) unwell person does not have the means to give back or attend to you as you say, like one in a coma. Thank you for sharing such a difficult chapter out of your life. Your compassion will help many.



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