with one smile

A few thoughts on how to help a friend with depression

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I realize as I go to post this that my last few entries on this blog have been pretty sad. First a story about my childhood bully, and then a long post about my wonderful cat dying. And now this. Next time I’ll aim to post something a little less heavy.

I suffer from depression, something that I absolutely do not talk about except with my closest friends, and for the past few years I’ve been feeling the need to come out of the closet and write about it publicly. I have an unpublished post that I’m still not brave enough to publish, because it’s raw and embarrassing and frightening and I’m afraid it will invoke pity or concern (it’s a brutally honest recounting of what it was like to go through the worst depression of my life).

And then I read Allie Brosh’s incredible story about her own fight with depression. Her blog, Hyperbole and a Half, is unbelievably popular–because it’s pee-your-pants hysterical. And then she blindsided absolutely everyone by posting this brilliant story about her struggles with depression. And it got 1.5 million views in one day. And the string of comments she received is incredible. Dozens and dozens of people were coming out and admitting for the first time that they have depression, too. Which told me two things: first, that there are a lot of people suffering from depression who desperately need to know they’re not alone, and secondly, that it’s okay to be known as a funny, lighthearted human being and tell people about your private struggle. It won’t change the way they feel about you (and if it does, fuck ’em; you’re better off without them anyway).

As I come out of yet another round of depression, I’ve found myself thinking about all the things my friends have done for me over the years that have made me feel just a tiny bit less awful when I’m in a bad place. I’ve complied a list of these things, in case any of you happen to have a friend going through a tough time and need some ideas about how to help them (I know friends can feel helpless watching someone they love go downhill like that). I want to stress that these things are specific to me, and will absolutely not work for everyone. But hopefully some of them may help.

So here you go.

Be kind and be gentle. This is the most important one. When I’m going through depression, I tend to be an unreliable friend. I’m apt to back out of plans at the last minute (I get too overwhelmed to leave the house, and having to fake happiness and normalcy in public is indescribably awful), not return texts or emails for weeks or months (once they start to pile up, they snowball into an anxiety-inducing pile that just adds one more thing to the list of reasons why I’m a pathetic human being), and generally just blow people off and disappear. Which makes me feel even worse about myself. The friends who have been unequivocally forgiving of this are invaluable. Just keep reaching out to your friend, and sometimes it’ll stick.

Listen. And I mean really listen. I have been disheartened recently over how few people actually listen to one another. I can only assume it has to do with everyone’s rabid obsession with social media, which is a platform to incessantly babble on about yourself, but I’ve found that lots of people just suck at shutting up and hearing what you’re trying to say—or even bothering to care what you have to say at all. I’m a good conversationalist. I express genuine interest in what someone is saying, and I tend to ask a lot of questions. Once you start to notice how few questions someone asks you in return, it’s hard not to see it everywhere. You walk away from a conversation realizing the person never even bothered to ask the basic question of how you’re doing. It’s sad and alienating (not to mention rude) and it makes you feel used and useless and unimportant. If your friend wants to talk, for god’s sake let them. Without interruption. Even if they’re telling you what a miserable failure they are, resist the urge to jump in and reassure them they’re not (you can bring that up later). Wait until they’re done talking and then respond. When someone is depressed, they can become so trapped inside their own head that it can be incredibly difficult to put their thoughts into words, so don’t make it worse by constantly interjecting.

That being said, here’s tip number two, which sounds contradictory but hear me out: talk about yourself. Fewer things relieve the pain of depression than when a friend reciprocates with an emotional life dump. It brings me back to the good old days, when everything feels okay and my friend and I can have a hearty session of mutual venting. I still love you and I want to know how you’re doing. I want to hear about your new job, about your crazy ex, about your kids, about how you love your new highlights. Anything. Talk to me. One of the myriad shitty things that goes along with depression is the constant worry that you’ve become a completely self-absorbed, awful person. Knowing that our friendship is not being put on hold because of my depression is a very comforting thing to know.

Check in every day. Getting a text message every morning from a friend is sometimes the highlight of my day, even when I’m not going through a bad spot. I don’t care if you’re just saying good morning or if you’re telling me you’re on your way to Stop & Shop to buy pickles. Just having that daily connection to another human being is invaluable. Something that also helps me is for me and a friend to each set a goal and then check in every day about it. Recently one of my friends wanted to get outside every day to enjoy the fall, and I wanted to start dragging myself to the gym again. It’s sweet to get a text saying “Go to the gym! You’ll feel better! Even though you totally do not want to go right now!!!”. And then I can message them later and ask if they made it out for a walk that day. And if I didn’t do the one thing I said I was going to that day, which of course does nothing for my already crumbling self-esteem, my friend is instantly forgiving. “It’s okay! Maybe you needed a day on the couch! You can always go to the gym tomorrow!”.

Let them know–and remind them–that they can check in with you any time. But–and this is incredibly important–only tell them this if you mean it. I had a well-meaning person years ago who responded with shock and pity to the news of my depression, and promised to be there if I ever needed a phone call. And then they either didn’t respond or, if they did, they inadvertently talked about themselves the whole time. Almost nothing makes a depressed person feel lousier than someone feigning concern for them and then totally checking out. It makes you feel worthless. It makes you feel like shit. It makes you feel like it doesn’t matter if you even exist to them. If you can’t offer to be there for your friend, that’s okay. Your friend isn’t expecting you to be. But if you can do it, do it. You have no idea how much this means to us.

Laughter is amazing, and it’s something I generally do not have the capacity to do when I’m depressed. Invite your friend over to have takeout and wine and watch comedy on Netflix (Bill Burr and Jen Kirkman are particularly hysterical). And when I’m that beaten down, going to the movies is practically a religious experience. Two hours that I’m not consumed with hateful thoughts about myself? Amazing. Take your friend to the movies (but for god’s sake not some Nicholas Sparks tear jerker). Action, horror, and comedy are the best, at least for me. It’s generally pretty hard to cry when you’re watching Daniel Craig pursue a bad guy for twenty minutes by way of some pretty amazing parkour shit.

Go do fun things with them. Suggest a walk, be it downtown (people watching and window shopping are fun) or through the woods (as we all know by now, exercise is incredibly helpful in fighting off depression). Go check out that new consignment shop. Grab coffee at your favorite coffee place. Get a ridiculous, over the top makeover at Sephora. Think of things the two of you have always loved to do together, and then do them. Also, another wonderful thing? Good old-fashioned sleepovers. Bring over cozy blankets, indulge in yummy food, binge watch really terrible tv, get a little drunk, stay up talking til 3 am, make each other pee laughing. But make sure it’s just the two of you. Keep in mind that being around several friends at once can be completely overwhelming to someone going through hell, and it can also put them on edge all night thinking that there’s about to be an intervention.

Ask your friend to run errands with you. It’s likely that they have a growing list of things they need to get done and just can’t handle, but more importantly, it gives them a feeling of being needed. Asking them for help with something makes them feel a bit less useless, and can be a nice reminder that you need help with stuff too. Tell them you could really use some help organizing your clothes and bringing them to the Goodwill, and then ask if they need help doing something around the house.

Ask if there’s anything you can do. Sometimes there is. Sometimes your friend will ask you to call them every day, or go with them to an appointment, or even go by the post office and mail something for them. Depression can feel so selfish that the mere idea of needing someone to do something for you is repulsive. But if you offer, it can make a big difference.

When it comes right down to it, it’s really, truly all about little gestures of kindness. Send them a postcard saying hi. Send them a text message filled with stupid octopus emoji. Email them a video of a yawning baby sloth. Bring them flowers when you come over. Visit them at work just to say a quick hello. Leave a chocolate bar in their mailbox.

Having been both a person with depression and a person with a friend with depression, watching a friend go through this shit is horrible. You feel helpless to help them, you feel frustrated when they thwart your efforts to assist them, you feel fed up with them, you feel worried about them. I encourage you to read about depression, ask a therapist what you can do to help your friend, ask someone you know who’s been through depression what helped them through it. The more you understand how fucked up depression can be, the better equipped you’ll be to help your friend through it. Depression doesn’t just mean laying on the couch all day next to a box of tissues and calling out of work all the time. It has some pretty bizarre symptoms as well, like anxiety, spaciness/forgetfulness, zoning out, fatigue, the inability to fall asleep at night, headaches and body aches, snappiness, anger, and extreme guilt over absolutely ludicrous things (at one point I could not let go of the fact that I never sent a thank-you card to a distant relative in the UK who put me up for a weekend. Fifteen years ago).

Thank you for listening. And if you’ve been in the same boat, please feel free to chime in with your own list of things that have helped you in the past. Admitting that there’s something wrong with the way your brain works is humiliating, but the more we talk about it, the better it will be for everyone.



This entry was published on November 3, 2015 at 12:52 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “A few thoughts on how to help a friend with depression

  1. Hilary, your writing struck a serious nerve. I too have battled depression and chronic anxiety, for 34 years-actually all my life only I did not know what it was when I was young.I am intimately acquainted with the pit and have experienced that downward slide more times than I care to think about. While it is not the first topic of conversation… Hi I’m Peg and I am mentally ill!…… I do talk about it, a lot. I don’t go into an organ recital of my misery, but everyone who knows me knows about it. My dearest friends are fully understanding and now recognize when I am sliding. They are wonderfully supportive. Keep talking, please. Talk really does take away some of the power depression has over youfr psyche. People need to know that not every depressed person will go out and shoot up a shopping mall!
    You are not alone. I am walking right beside you

    • Hilary Emerson Lay on said:

      Your post is beautifully written, Peg. Although I’ve never been suicidal, much of what you said resonates with me. Friends and talking are key. And so, for me, is medication. I ran out for about a month–I’m between health insurances–which is part of why I went downhill again. I’m perfectly okay with the notion of taking medication for the rest of my life. Fuck the stigma.
      Thank you SO much for sharing this. You are very brave to share your story, but damn does it help the rest of us.

  2. Pingback: What you might’ve missed because you were busy writing your best selling novel in a month… | The Mother Freakin' Princess

    • Hilary Emerson Lay on said:

      Thank you so much, MFP. I have a post in drafts that’s a list of ways I cope with my own depression, which I’ll publish eventually. I appreciate you sharing your blog with me.
      I, too, consider glitter bombing your bedroom a victory. A small but wonderful victory. Here’s to kicking depression in its sorry ass! ❤

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