When you have a cold, the guy who sits next to you at work says, “Hey, you sound better.”
If you recently had a baby, your neighbor smiles and asks, “Are you getting any sleep yet?”
If your mom’s chemo has ended, your friends want to know, “What did the doctors say? How’s she doing?”
But what If you’ve spent the last three or four months struggling with getting out of bed? What if you’re doing well to get one project out of the way at work, when there are five more to take its place? What if you felt no joy in hearing your kids’ laughter?
What if you were having a bout of depression?
Generally, people don’t know what to say, so there are no questions. Because your illness is mental, it’s as if it can’t be talked about.
Slowly, maybe with therapy, maybe with medication, you can begin to feel better. Maybe you managed to start running, although every morning you had to force your feet to hit the pavement. Maybe you started trying to focus on what you had control over and came up with an active strategy to heal. Maybe you sifted through feelings from old wounds that had never healed. Maybe you cried, worked through anger, kept a journal, or became more mindful.
And your depression began to lift.
If you suffer from depression cycles, you know it will be back. You have to manage it – watch for the signs of its return.
But for now, it’s better.
It’s hard work to accept and work with depression. You’re trying to use your mind – the part of you that’s not functioning well – to fix itself. It’s a bit like trying to run on a broken leg in order for it to heal. But that’s what you have to do.
Some people have the understanding to support you. Many don’t.
People don’t want to believe that something unforeseen, something they can’t control, can take over their life, and rob them of contentment and pleasure.
Just ask any woman who’s struggled with postpartum depression. She’ll tell you that there is very little to no support for a new mom who’s depressed – who can’t seem to bond with her new baby – who wants to scream – who feels dead inside. Instead, she hears, “Oh, you’re just tired.” Or, “It takes a little time to adjust.” Or, “It’s your hormones raging.”
Finally, celebrities are talking about PPD openly. And it seems to be helping raise awareness and acceptance.
Ask someone who discovers they have bipolar illness, and have to learn how to manage mood swings, racing thoughts and seemingly sudden drops into feelings of emptiness and despair. They learn to make sure they get enough sleep, take medication, watch their stress levels, in order to try and manage their illness. What kind of support do they receive? Are they seen as somehow damaged? Less than?
Many times, yes.
So, if you don’t experience depression, how can you be supportive instead of adding loneliness, minimization and shame onto those that do?
You can say things like, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But I’m here to listen.” Simple things really.
You can suspend judgment. You can try to learn. You can confront your own fear of life getting out of control.
And if you do experience depression, you can openly talk with those you trust, who are trying to understand and confront whatever shame, discounting or loneliness you may have been feeling.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for twenty-five years in Fayetteville, Arkansas., Her work can be found at http://www.drmargaretrutherford.com, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, the Gottman Blog and others. She’s the author of “Marriage Is Not For Chickens”, a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Her new book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, will be published by New Harbinger in 2019.