The truth is, there isn’t an awful lot you can do. But the good news: you don’t have to do a lot to make a really big difference.
Before we dive in, let’s get a few things straight:
There’s never a good time to be depressed
Chances are you’re dealing with your own brand of sh*t while your loved one faces their monsters. It can feel incredibly unfair to have to put your stuff aside to help someone else. It’s going to make you mad and you’re going to f*ck it up – a lot. Learn to be okay with this.
Depression is selfish
It robs us of the ability to be present and see things for what they really are. It keeps us focussed on ourselves and all the ways we aren’t enough. You’re justified in feeling frustrated, helpless and a little lonely when someone you love is depressed. You’ll get frustrated with them – that’s normal, you’re not a terrible person for feeling this way.
It’s not you, it’s us
It’s much easier said than done but if your loved-one is depressed, you can’t take their state personally. If you accept that their grumpiness, short and sharp responses or mood swings are caused by something you did or said, you will constantly feel attacked, helpless and in a bad mood. The truth is; we’re not mad or grumpy or frustrated at you – we’re actually really mad at ourselves. And it comes out in the way we respond to you. And no, it’s not fair on you.
You’re going to suck at helping – at first
There’s nothing more infuriating than trying to help someone and having that help thrown back in your face. The trouble is that help looks really different to each of us. What looks like help to you can feel like an accusation, a judgement or a burden to someone else – especially if that someone is anxious or depressed. The best thing to do is ask: “how can I help?” There’s a strong chance your depressed and anxious loved-one doesn’t have the answer and you will have to figure it out together. That’s normal. Try anyway.
So, why do depressed people suck to be around?
Our core beliefs
Everyone believes certain things about themselves. “I’m a terrible dancer”, “I had a good childhood”, “I’m not into olives”, and so on. And these beliefs make up the lens through which we see and navigate the world. Some beliefs have been with us for a very long time and are so strong they feel like facts. These are core beliefs and have a big influence on how we see ourselves and interpret the world – “I had a good childhood”. Others are shallow, can be changed and don’t have much influence – “I’m not into olives”.
A core belief shared by most depressed and anxious people is “I am not enough”. Not good enough, not fit enough, not attractive enough, not smart enough, not rich enough. There are too many ways to be “not enough”.
When we’re depressed, we get fixated on these core beliefs and they become facts to us. Ever tried arguing with a flat-earther? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
Our negative narratives
The anxious and depressed brain is incredible at twisting stories – and not in a nice way.
Let’s say you send a message to a friend and they don’t respond. A healthy narrative you’d tell yourself is: They’re busy, I’m sure they’ll reply when they get a moment. An unhealthy narrative you’d tell yourself is: I’ve made them angry, I’m not important to them, I’ve said something dumb, they don’t want to speak to me.
What we tell ourselves dictates how we respond to situations. And each time we respond, the world around us responds back – and so on and so on. So the more negative the narrative we tell ourselves, the more negative feedback we receive in return. Being depressed makes us negative and kind of crappy company.
Our inability to do or decide
Know what happens when you don’t feel like you’re “enough”? You believe you’re a burden and that your wants and needs don’t matter enough to be counted. You can’t make decisions. You can’t take action.
Chances are one way you want to help your depressed and anxious loved-one is by doing whatever it is they want to do. But this will often backfire.
What do you want for dinner? I don’t know. What do you feel like watching? I don’t know. What do you want to do today? I don’t know.
It gets tiring trying to please someone who doesn’t know what they want. But when we say “I don’t know”, what we’re really saying is “I don’t matter”.
Being aware of something doesn’t alone give you the power to change it – if it did, no one would smoke or eat sugar, we’d all be in the 5am club and we’d all be fit as fiddles. Very often we know what we need to do to get out of a depressed slump, but it feels impossibly hard to move.
Chances are you’ve tried to help your loved one by gently (very gently) nudging them to take action.
Have you found a doctor? Have you emailed the gym? Have you spoken to your mom?
Guilt is a nasty and powerful author of our already negative narratives. To your depressed loved-one those questions sound like statements: You’re so stupid you can’t even find a doctor to help you. You’re so lazy and pathetic, you can’t even walk into a gym. You’re too much for me to handle, call your mother.
We respond to the statements in our heads and not the questions you’ve just asked. This can make it really frustrating and difficult for you to feel like you’re helping.
How can you make life suck a little less for them – (while not totally inconveniencing yourself)?
There’s not a lot you can do. But these 10 things might help:
Hugs are healing – literally. They help the brain release oxytocin, a hormone that relaxes the body, lessens anxiety and lowers blood pressure. A good healing hug lasts between 5 – 10 seconds and we should hug at least 4 times a day. Men don’t get hugged nearly enough. Black men especially don’t get hugged often enough. Hug your men. Hug with your whole body. Hug them often. Hug for longer.
If your loved-one is medicating, bring them a glass of water and their pill(s). This shows them that you know how important it is, that someone will notice if they stop taking meds, that you support and don’t judge them for medicating.
WhatsApps work fine, but a physical note we can fold up and put in our pockets is better. Leave them in unexpected (but findable) places. On a windshield, in a notebook, on a desk, in a bag. Let them say simple things: “You’re loved”, “You’ve got this”, “You’re enough”, “You’re never alone”, “Keep going”.
Ask us why
If you’re giving a gentle nudge about something (like emailing the gym) and we snap back or give a grumpy response, keep the conversation going. It’s tough because a short response can kill a conversation but try to sympathise and ask: Okay, what stood in the way? What held you back? What makes it feel scary? I’m just trying to understand. This is so important: It’s not about solving the problem, it’s about helping each other to understand the problem better.
Ask us twice
Sometimes three times. Because the first time you ask “how are you doing”, we’re going to say “fine”. It’s instinct, it’s natural, we don’t want to burden you and we’re pretty sure (negative narrative) that you don’t want to hear the truth. We’re pretty sick of the truth, ourselves. Asking us twice affirms that you really do care and you’re not just asking because you think you have to. This helps us to feel less alone.
Give us ABCs
Depression and anxiety cloud our ability to decide. We can’t make a decision out of an infinite number of choices. But it really helps to have someone break it down for us. If you’ve asked what we want for dinner and we say “I don’t know”, suggest three options, a, b or c and you’ll see how much easier it is for us to respond.
Be present with us
Not all the time. But in purposeful moments, really be there with us. Go for a 30 min walk. A drive to watch the sunset. A cup of coffee overlooking a busy street. Share a meal. Whatever the thing is, let us know that this time is for us. Use this time to hold space for us, to allow us to speak if we can, to be silent if we need to, to just be. Without expectation or judgement. It will feel awkward at first. Go with it.
Call in the troops
You don’t have to do this alone, you can activate your support network. Find someone you can vent to but also nudge people close to you to get involved and spare their time to be present with your struggling loved-one. Chances are they haven’t told the people closest to them how they’re feeling. Most people want to help, they just don’t know how or if it’s appropriate.
Get on the same team
When we’re depressed, it’s tough enough to trust your own brain, let alone another person. Remind your loved-one that it’s you and them against depression. Not them against you and the depression. It can really feel like the latter a lot of the time. Ask them what ways you could show them that you’re on their side and allow yourselves to work out what that looks like together.
Hang in there
When you’re in the presence of depression, a minute can feel like an hour. But with time and treatment we’ll find ourselves again – this too shall pass. We’ll laugh and play and joke around. We’ll do the things we love again. We’ll find our hope and faith. The most important thing you can do is be consistent. We will be eternally grateful that you’re still there when we come out the other side of this.
Bonus: Don’t try to fix our problems. Only we can do that.
This feels like real garbage advice. That’s because it feels counterintuitive and really hard to do. It’s difficult to watch someone you love face something so invisibly debilitating and not be able to do anything about it – especially when you believe you know exactly what would help. But you will only make yourself miserable if you try to solve our problems. Only we can do that. The best thing you can do is help us to understand ourselves better and be patient while we stumble our way to the solution on our own.
And we will. Because we didn’t choose this. And just like you, all we want is to feel like ourselves again.
I hope this helps. Sorry for the swears. Love x