The farther away I get from my last depression, the harder it is for me to remember the specific feelings associated with that hellish place. But when the topic of depression comes up, a chill runs up my spine when I remember just how bad it was.
My depression was different each time. The first time I experienced depression I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. I was a teenage girl experiencing raging hormones, substance experimentation, sexual exploration and the normal pressures of high school. My blue skies turned gray over a period of years. Then in just a few short months, those gray clouds turned black and opened up, pouring rain and hail down on me and my loved ones. Before I knew it, I was sullen, silent and suicidal. The old Jenny was gone and a shell of a person, a ghost Jenny took my place.
My family tried to help… but only made it worse. They pushed me for answers, they prodded me with questions, they got angry. I was killing my parents. My siblings told me how selfish I was and what a toll I was taking on my mom and dad. Everyone hated me and I knew it. I knew I was causing everyone I loved so much pain. I knew that every silent moment, every drink, drug and inch of emotional distance was another knife in my parents’ hearts. I knew it but was helpless to stop.
The sickest part about my depression was that as I was causing pain to those I loved, I was screaming inside for help. I was begging and pleading for someone, anyone to help me stop these awful behaviors, to help me out of this evil, wretched place. And yet, I was unable to open my mouth and vocalize any of it. Instead, my depression shot daggers of hate out of my eyes, pushing those I needed most even further away. My depression strangled my throat so that only ugly words could be formed and it paralyzed my muscles so that I could no longer smile, hug or laugh.
The second depression was not quite as subtle. It was temperamental, demanding and bratty. At first I thought it was just normal to be completely nasty. After all, I was a young stay-at-home mother who hated winter and lived a life of “not good enough.” I tried to blame the feelings on everyone and everything outside of me. It was only when I got so low I couldn’t deny it any longer that I had to face the fact that I was depressed again. When this reality hit, the only option I saw was driving my car into the river. But instead of doing that, instead of telling anyone close to me what I was thinking or feeling, I called a therapist and finally got some much needed help.
The third visit from my dark nemesis was more noticeable to my friends and family than it was to me. I was demonstrating anger, agitation and irritability long before I realized anything was truly wrong. Then came the lack of concentration and focus. Fatigue and binge-eating followed. Within months I was avoiding social engagements and wanting to do serious harm to those around me. Not homicidal harm. I just wanted to punch my coworkers and slap whiny people. You know, those things we all think about sometimes. Except I actually saw myself doing them.
Once I recognized that I was again sliding and sliding fast, I told my family. I immediately got some help. But because I am bipolar, the antidepressants I was prescribed sent me into a psychotic episode. Ahhh… the shame of it all. You see, it was during this phase of my illness, during this insanely, maddening, overtly suicidal phase that I felt the truly sick nature of my depression.
I knew I was losing my mind and was completely and utterly helpless to do anything about it. I described it as if I was holding onto a rope with both hands and the rope was slowly being pulled from me. The tighter I gripped, the more my hands chaffed, ripped and bled. No matter what I did to try to hold on to the remaining strands of my sanity, it still slipped through my hands. The worst part was that I was still just sane enough to realize I was going insane. That was terrifying.
My family tried to help. My husband lost 15 pounds he was so stressed. My children tiptoed around me and worried every day. My parents and siblings called my husband long distance daily to check on me. My therapist gave me direction, my psychiatrist gave me medication and my job gave me time off.
None of it helped. In fact, some of it made my depression worse. Not because these were bad things to do for me. But because mental illness, depression in particular, is insidiously evil. It tells me that I am a piece of crap. It tells me that I am worthless and unworthy of anyone’s love. It tells me that no matter what YOU say, everyone would be better off without me. It tells me I am a loser, a mistake and a burden to you and everyone else on the face of the earth.
So when you try to help I will push you away. When you try to hug me, I will cringe in real physical pain because the emotional pain of hating myself is too intense. When you tell me you love me and want me to get better I will hate myself more because I know that with every passing second, I am hurting you more which makes me feel worse about myself. When you ask me what I want to do I will cry because I can’t even put two thoughts together. When you ask me if I would like to go for a walk, go to a movie or go out to eat I will shrug and try to comply, but only to make you feel better. What I really want is for you to make decisions for me but I cannot tell you that.
You see, none of these things, no matter how well intended, will make me feel better when I’m depressed. I know that’s not what you, family and friends of us depressed folks want to hear. But for me, that is the dirty truth. Let me say it again:
NOTHING YOU SAY OR DO WILL HELP ME OUT OF MY DEPRESSION!
I will only get out of it when I’m ready. I will only come to the surface when I have the right medical, physical and emotional therapy. I will only accept those therapies when I’m ready. And I will only be ready when everyone leaves me alone and I make that choice to fight the demon inside me.
But until that time… HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN’T DO FOR ME:
- Leave me alone. Stop watching me, stop calling me, stop bugging me every second. Stop asking me how I’m feeling and checking to see if I’m still breathing. Not only is it incredibly annoying, it makes me feel worse.
- Talk. Depression is an awfully silent illness. It renders even the most loquacious people completely mute. And when we stop talking things can get deafeningly silent. But please, keep talking. Talk to others in the house, talk around us, talk at us, even if we don’t respond. Keep the conversation of life going and eventually we might jump in. There’s nothing worse for me than silence, even if I’m the one creating it.
- Live your life. I might want to end mine, but I want you to live yours. Yes, this is insane. You might think I want all the attention on me. You might think that depression is my way of getting you to coddle me and dote on me. WRONG! I don’t want your sympathy, your service or your attention at all. Actually, I just want to disappear in a puff of smoke. But somewhere inside my insane illness is a needy, greedy victim that thrives on your attention. Please don’t feed it. Live your life and let me know about it. I just might want to join you.
- Keep to a schedule. Just because I’m going to sleep all day doesn’t mean you have to. Even if you live with me, please keep to a schedule. Get up, shower, make noise, fart, do whatever you would normally do. It might inconvenience me and that’s okay. Sit on the sofa and watch stupid shows or play video games while I’m napping. It might piss me off enough to snap me out of my mood for a moment or two. Who knows, I might actually watch with you.
- Don’t give me choices. For the love of God, PLEASE don’t give me choices. It takes a Herculean effort just to decide if I will wear slippers or flip flops. Please don’t make me work any harder than I have to. Just state what is going to happen – “We’re having chicken for dinner.” or “Breakfast is on the table when you’re ready.” or “We’re going to the psych ward at 10:00.” Really, don’t give me any wiggle room. Just say it once and move on.
- Offer me some help. Key word here is OFFER. I probably won’t be able to call psychiatrists or therapists myself, or won’t want to. But you can. You can even schedule an appointment. Again, don’t give me choices. Just schedule the appointment, tell me we are going and take me. Once I am in the care of a professional, let them do the hard work. If I choose not to go or take meds, talk to my therapist and ask them what your options are. But don’t make those decisions on your own and don’t force me to do anything after that first appointment. Just tell me and if I refuse, pray for me and keep on living.
- Get help for yourself. I’ve always said it is probably 100 times worse living with a depressed person than it is living with depression. I have watched my husband suffer horribly as I pulled him into my hell. I watched him struggle, cry and die a little inside
every time I got worse and sunk deeper. He stopped living and instead lived to save me. Even though his intentions were good, they made me feel worse. Please get help for yourself. Talk to other people who have lived with depressed loved ones. Call a counselor or therapist and learn what you can do for me and for you. Join a support group. I don’t care what you do, just do something. Take some of that attention off of me and put it on you, please.
- Don’t celebrate my progress. Insane, I know. It might be cause for major celebration when I do something monumental like shower or get out of my pajamas, but please don’t throw a party. It’s okay to make a casual comment but don’t tell me I smell so good or look fabulous today. Just smile and go about your day. I will ask for recognition if I want it. Chances are I don’t. I probably just want to fly under the radar. Little positive steps will give me the strength to go further. If I think I’m being watched I might recoil.
- Don’t try to understand it. Unless you’ve been depressed, you cannot understand what I am going through. What you can do is talk to people who have lived with depressed people. You can talk to mental health professionals. And you can invite someone with depression to reach out to me or vice versa. But don’t ask me what I’m feeling, why I’m feeling or what you can do because I don’t know.
- Don’t accept unacceptable behavior. I can be really nasty when I’m depressed. Hypomania, mania and depression can all manifest with irritability and anger. Don’t let me get away with unacceptable behavior. Being ill doesn’t give me the right to be mean. If I’m overly sarcastic, vengeful, spiteful, rude or disrespectful, tell me that you do not like my sarcastic, vengeful, spiteful, rude or disrespectful behavior and you will not accept that. SET BOUNDARIES to protect yourself and to prevent my illness from gaining unlimited momentum.
- Don’t leave me alone for too long. I don’t want to scare you, but I might be contemplating suicide or thinking some pretty dark thoughts. I don’t want you hovering over me and stopping by, calling all the time. But I don’t want to be alone for very long either. Even if I live alone, I want to have some sort of activity, obligation to keep me in front of other human beings. Try to encourage me to stay working or volunteering. If this isn’t possible, see if you can recruit me to help with a project of sorts. Again, don’t give me too many choices or options. If I feel I am needed in a way that has nothing to do with my depression, it might help me get out of my head for a little while. Heck, set me up with an accountability partner or sponsor who I have to be accountable to every day with a phone call. Give me responsibility instead of usurping it from me which will only makes me feel more useless.
Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not a counselor, therapist or social worker. I’m just a woman who has struggled with bipolar-depression most of my life. I hope my experience can help others living with depression and those who love us. The suggestions above are merely suggestions and you should always consult a mental health professional when facing depression, bipolar, suicide or any mental illness challenges.