Saturday, October 21, 2006

Four Easy Steps to Help Loved Ones Understand Your Depression! Woobie!!

Last week I lurched over to my keyboard, covered it in viral goo while gasping for air, and typed out part one of three in a series covering Depression and our relationships with loved ones. I wish I could say that the internet gasped in sympathy and offered me binary tissues, but nobody really cared. The only emails I received were from people billing me for the time spent reading my column and a death threat from a man named Vlandavar the Singing Beaver. I just marked it all as spam and tossed it in the bin. Then I got busy typing up part two.

Phoenix, a reader, wrote: "It sounds like your wife is very supportive- do you have any ideas for me on how can I help my husband understand?"

Long before I was diagnosed with depression I was a moody guy. My parents really worried about me. One time, for instance, I was given the assignment in art school to paint my self-portrait in greyscale with nothing but a palette knife. I created a veritable masterpiece of my face screaming into the night, eyes and mouth filled with black. You could feel the angst leap off the life-sized canvas, grip you by the throat, and force you to subscribe to Psychologist Today. Pridefully, I charged down to the kitchen to show my mother my seminal opus. She blinked at it a bit, looked not unlike a person who had just swallowed a frog, then pleaded, "Why don't you draw something happy for a change, like flowers?" I ranted and raged that she just didn't get me and stormed off in a huff. Poor Mum.

I came across that painting a few years ago, years after I had begun mastering my depression, and just laughed at it. What a silly, melodramatic bit of twaddle. But I remembered painting that portrait and how much emotion was imbued in it. It represented how I felt and how I viewed the world. My mother's attempt at that time to reach out to me was unsuited for my state of mind. I wasn't just in a frumpy mood. In fact, I didn't see anything wrong with me at all (which is why her advice was so rudely ignored) My whole world view was ruled by those out of whack feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and self-loathing. But now that I'm an adult I look at that moment with Mum very differently. I see now that I forgot to tailor the message to the listener.

I wasn't necessarily crying for help, but I should have known that my bold, shocking portrait wasn't going to go over well with a lady who loved the Gnomes books. Likewise, helping a loved one understand Depression requires forethought to help tailor the message. I've spent the last few years figuring out how to help people understand what Depression is and, ultimately, help them understand me.

1) Describe depression in terms that they understand. Quoting from a brochure may cause them to be more skeptical because they'll think you're just parroting what you've read in a book, so personalize it for them.

2) Relate it to a time when they remember being sad, like when a loved one died. Then explain that the chemical factory within your mind is miscalibrated. For example, the sadness they might feel for the loss of a loved one can be close to how I feel if I miss the bus or don't get that raise at work. The deeper the disappointment, the greater the depths of despair. Ofttimes, however, I feel sad for no reason at all. It is difficult to "snap out of" because the feelings of sadness are so great, - so consuming - that they often leave me with no energy to move or be productive.

The comparison approach often works for skeptics because the idea that the mind chemically overreacts to life seems to click with them. Many can't get their brains around being sad for no reason, however. And they still struggle internally with the idea that maybe we're just not trying hard enough to be happy, as if we somehow decided "I think I'll feel miserable this morning." Those are not the people who will be understanding you any time soon. If this is a loved one you need for support, go back to step one.

3) Help your loved one identify when you are depressed. Moving beyond understanding into support is the next step. You may need to point out the signs after you've had a bad episode, but as they get better at recognizing the symptoms you will find them more helpful as they try to lift your spirits. Do your part by letting their efforts improve your mood, but we'll discuss that more in next week's column. Focus first on communicating and sharing insights. There may be a temptation to snap at or get discouraged by a clueless loved one, but that's not going to help in the long run. There is also the temptation to expect them to somehow read your mind. If things were that easy they'd be spending their time getting kicked out of Vegas while becoming filthy rich.

4) Identify what type of support you need from loved ones. This step is the lengthiest of the four as you and your loved ones experiment with what works for you, but you need to know what you want before you make expectations. Do you want understanding, hugs, personal space, or a kick in the pants? Remember to tailor your expectations to the capacities of your loved ones and yourself. When my wife and daughters first tried to help me out of Depression their hugs and kind words fell on closed ears. However, over time they learned better how to approach me and I learned how to be more receptive to their aide. This empowered me to not wallow in it during the times I could not push the depression away by myself. Now when they see my countenance fall and Depression encroach from the wings, or if I detect it myself and explain that I'm depressed, there is understanding, patience, and a communal effort to boost my spirits. It is usually exactly what I need to put Depression behind me and move on.

Keep in mind not to expect too much too quickly. If your loved one is particularly dense, judgmental, or just plain mean no amount of thoughtful communication is going to get them to suddenly become the pillar of support you need them to be. You may need to look elsewhere for your support, but do keep trying to find the support you need. I make light of Depression from time to time to buoy my spirits and not let it get me down and maybe not let it get you down, but Depression really is a serious disability. The nice thing is that you don't have to let it control your life.

Summoning the Strength to Type. Humor NOT Guaranteed.
Depression: Ten Ways to Fight It Off, Part 1
Depression: Ten Ways to Fight It Off, Part 2