Reader Claire asked:
"Is there anything I can do to help my spouse not be depressed?"
Well, considering I am depressed right now and up alone with no family around I may not be in the best mood to answer this question. I certainly don't feel funny so I'm not in my usual witty writing mood. Then again, maybe I am in the perfect mood to write about this.I certainly know what might be going through their minds.
In my experience, when I am in Depression's grip there are two things happening in my mind that enable it: wallowing and pessimism. When dealing with my wife's and daughter's depression I have found these two culprits are solely responsible for preventing me from helping them as well. Unfortunately, we cannot grab cans of gumption and optimism and sprinkle them over the affected area. In fact, the depressive may not be interested in any effort to alter their mood if they are wallowing deep enough.
So what to do? The first culprit, wallowing, is a hard label for those suffering from Depression to own. After all, wallowing is something pigs like to do - to indulge themselves in their own mess. We are told many things about Depression. That it is a mental illness due to chemical imbalances in the brain, or it is caused by trauma in their lives, or even that it is NOT a chemical imbalance at all but a result of a higher concentration of stress hormones - which sounds like a chemical imbalance to me. And yet the wallowing metaphor is aptly applied.
Outside or internal forces may bring on the waves of crushing sadness, but our will determines how long we stay within their influence. Anyone robbed of joy and progress can easily enjoy their own private pity party from time to time. Those suffering from Depression, however, feel sorriest of all. This statement may anger many people, but it is how I feel about the matter and I stand by it. It is also in line with Cognitive Behavior Techniques. Depressives don't have to stay depressed. They have the power to lift their thoughts and be free. But sometimes they need to be shown the way.
That's all fine and dandy, but also possibly working against your loved one is a learned dependence on medications and doctors, as well as the side-effects from meds that are affecting them. They might be conditioned to believe that meds and only doctors certified to prescribe meds offer them salvation. Any attempt to be Mary Sunshine by you is going to be greeted with contempt. Who are YOU after all to suggest the problem is only in their head?
Complicating matters is that the tendency to wallow is a result of the disorder. Telling somebody who is depressed to cheer up is like telling a stuttering person to stop stammering just because they have the power to control themselves. Ideally, it is true, but it takes a lot of training and patience before results are heard. Depressives may not even realize they are wallowing. Why not? Because the other culprit, pessimism, twists their world view. They have moved far beyond apathy.
Pessimism is the belief that there is nothing they can do to change things. Nothing they do matters. It's all too much work for too little reward. Just leave them alone. Go away. Stop bothering them. Let them watch their TV in peace. Let them craft their morbid little gothic poems. Let them sharpen their knives and keep the window shades drawn. Let them drown in blackness. Nobody really cares anyway.
How on Earth are you going to break into that? Beaming and smiling at them is like brilliant sunshine to the eyes of a person who has been accustomed to the dark. No wonder they react hostilely to your efforts. I used to react the same with my family. Remember my portrait example? I wasn't interested in feeling happy. I couldn't even conceive what that meant.
Assuming that your loved one is feeling as black as that now here are a few tips you could try:
1) Don't expect instant results. You need to be in this for the long haul.
2) Get them to agree to let you help them. You may need to convince them they need help in the first place. This step is optional, I suppose if you can accomplish step 3 without letting them know what you are up to.
3) Target the pessimism first. You have to help them stop being so negative. None of your efforts will matter if you cannot help them see things more positively.
3) You cannot tell them they are being pessimistic, even fatalistic. They won't believe you. Their world view is altered by their negative perceptions. You need to help them see it for themselves. For example, I used to believe I received more flame mail than compliments. One day I decided to test if my perception was really skewed. I kept track of email for a month. At the end I had 30 compliments to one hate mail. He said his dog could draw better than I did. I actually laughed, completely out of character for me at the time. The scales fell away from my eyes and the healing began. Life was not as bleak as I believed it was. It took years, but I needed that one moment of epiphany and my family could build on that.
Today, for example, I complained that nobody really reads my blog (compared to the hundreds that read A-Listers' blogs). My daughter became mad at me. She said she was tired of me discounting her readership. She didn't just read the blog because she was asked to, she read it because she was subscribed to it. She was very hurt, and I apologized. Even today I still need to be on the watch out for pessimism coloring my world view. And my family is there to point it out when it becomes extreme.
4) Once you crack the pessimism nut you can begin working on their little pity parties. The wallowing is a byproduct of all those negative emotions swirling around in their head. Don't scold them. Don't make them feel like mental gnats. Help them see when they are doing it. Help them want to be free. This will require patience and love and optimism. You are working against years of bad habits and low self image.
5) Help them develop optimism as a skill. I started out by forcing myself to think of one thing positive a day. It was VERY hard at first, but I gained momentum. My wife was very helpful in this. And she was willing to laugh when I sarcastically offered very negative things as if they were positive things. Part of my black humor, I'm afraid. Eventually, I could think of several positive things a day, and I didn't once have to get goopy, dopey, silly or trite.
6) Most importantly, YOU cannot do all this for them. You can only help them want to help themselves.
My family couldn't reach me until I was ready to be reached. If they had these tips I know they could have reached me sooner. I have only scratched the surface, and your mileage may vary, but I believe that you can make headway adapting these techniques for your loved one. Good luck.
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Depression: Ten Ways to Fight It Off, Part 1
Depression: Ten Ways to Fight It Off, Part 2