I’ve never told my perfectly loving family or friends about the muddy, mucky, cringe-worthy details of what it is like to have the ghost of depression hang over you–so they haven’t a clue of the breadth and depth of the shadow it casts on my life. They know the sanitized parts of it—that I am on medications and that I undergo therapy. But if they knew fully, they’d be horrified and devastated. In addition to this lack of information, they are just a product of our society, the same society that is woefully underprepared to support people living with depression. Who can blame them? How can someone be faulted if they don’t know of the existence or extent of suffering, and don’t have the tools to help even if they know? When I am not in the throes of a depressive episode, I can strongly empathise with those around me for not being able to be more supportive.
But it’s not always so easy. When I start slipping into a depressive state, it boggles my mind. What is the onus we are putting on the mentally afflicted today? They are the ones drowning in their sorrows, fears, uncertainties, suicidal ideations. And yet the onus is on them–to reach out, to explain, to bare all. Depression is a disease defined by loneliness, intended and unintended isolation, lack of self-esteem, and hatred of the self–the opposite of which are needed to come out into the open, be vulnerable, and bare your soul with an “I am not doing well, I need X help from you.”
In contrast to the need to feel understood and helped, for me, there has been a sense of self-defeating comfort in the knowledge that these feelings and thoughts are mine alone, that these terribly negative manifestations are invisible to others. It would require me to shred every last ounce of self-worth I had, to come out into the open, and say “I’m doing so, so, so badly right now, and I want you to be there, no questions asked.” I would feel so completely naked.
Explaining depression is like having to speak an alien language. A language your audience doesn’t understand. A language even you don’t fully understand. It’s like just putting together some disjointed alien words, and hoping your audience understands the entire experience–through trial and error.
So the next time your loved one is suffering, don’t just ask “How are you?” Ask them instead: “Describe in words or writing how you feel.” Maybe even through a diary or an audio recording, where they won’t have to say it directly to you. Give them enough space and time to finish this description—till they are actually done. Some won’t be able to describe it fully, or properly. That’s fine too. The next time a loved one who is suffering has been out of touch for a while, don’t just say “What happened? It’s been so long“. Instead, make a plan to meet them, until they run out of reasons to say no. The next time you see a loved one avoiding anything–hanging out, meeting, talking, texting, having fun–go to them and gently pull them out of their shell. Don’t let them grieve in private, because that’s probably what they’re doing. Depression is a painful oxymoron—of pushing people away and yet wanting them to come after you and save you; so do the latter, and they’ll never forget you for it.