“Clinical depression” and “sad” are NOT the same thing. It’s like reducing bulimia to the stomach flu: just because you’re both throwing up doesn’t mean you’re suffering nearly the same way.
Good, now that we have common sense covered let’s move on.
Whenever a friend musters up enough courage to tell you that they have depression DO NOT talk to them like they had a bad day at school. Not only will it dismiss their feelings it will make them second guess talking about it the next time.
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I’m Still Not Over It
I never hid my depression but, until very recently, I wasn’t public about it either. Only a handful of my friends knew what was happening.
I still remember the day I told him. He was my boss but he was also quickly becoming my best friend. The conversation was kind of steering toward my admission so it wasn’t like a dramatic announcement or anything.
I told him that I had clinical depression and that I was getting treatment. His immediate response was, “C’mon Adam, you have nothing to be depressed about!” I’m still pissed.
In that moment, I understood that we would never be best friends. Friends sure, but nobody that insensitive and careless with their words could ever get that close to me. I can get past ignorance but insensitivity is inexcusable. Now I’ll admit that insensitivity was the least of this guy’s problems so I tried to take it with a grain of salt but it still really hurt and it still pops into my head every time I talk about depression to my friends, family, small group… anyone.
Don’t Be So Naive
I’m sure you’re not as insensitive as that guy but naïveté comes with a price too. I’m always shocked at the amount of fortune cookie wisdom I have to pretend to appreciate.
Listen, I do not need a motivational speaker or the name of the book Oprah had you read that changed your life. I know you mean well and you feel compelled to help me but if I’m currently getting treatment from professionals then let’s assume I’m getting advice from more qualified people than you.
I get this stuff all the time! It drives me nuts.
And – not to be a jerk – I am better educated, more intelligent, more in touch with my feelings, more spiritually aware, more theologically proficient, and all around have more of my shit together than 95% of the people giving me this weak-ass wisdom.
Even if none of that was the case someone with depression still has you beat just on experience. You’re not an expert on their feelings. They are living with themselves every single day.
So what ‘advice’ do you want to give me?
Are you going to tell me that if I knew how great of a guy I was I wouldn’t be depressed?
Are you going to say that if I only knew how much God loved me I wouldn’t be suicidal?
Are you going to remind me of all I have to be thankful for and, therefore I shouldn’t be sad?
Guess what! I actually do know I’m a great guy and that’s based on real standards not the low bar standards of our reality TV society. I certainly know my God loves me. I start most of my mornings in his word learning about his love for me and right before that I list out the things I’m blessed with so I can thank him. So yeah, I have a pretty good idea as to what I have to be thankful for. (Oh and by the way, you reminding me of all I have to be thankful for just makes me feel guilty for not being happy. Thanks.)
So What Should You Say to Your Friend
Well, let’s start with. “I’m sorry.” If you care about your friend and you don’t like that they are suffering then be honest and say that you’re sorry they have to go through this. Tell them you love them and that it hurts you to know that they are in pain.
It also helps to admit to them that you don’t know what they are going through. To be perfectly candid, I know you have no clue what I’m going through but you admitting it lets me know that you also know that you have no clue. When my friends do that it always scores a whole bunch of points with me.
If you are religious tell them that you will be praying for them. It wouldn’t hurt to then actually follow through in praying for them later in the week. As Christians, we all too often use, “I’ll pray for you” as a buffer. It’s Christian speak for, ‘I have no idea how to help you so I’m just going to stand over there because I sure as hell don’t want to catch whatever you have.”
Follow through. When I tell someone I’m praying for them I send them a text or a note later in the week to let them know that I am or that I did. It’s so encouraging to know that someone is praying for you so go the extra mile and prove you’re not one of the other 50 people who told your friend they were praying just to get out of the conversation. It will mean so much to them.
Offer to listen if they ever want to talk. If you mean it then say it and convey your willingness to be there for them. But only offer this if you are prepared to back it up. Only offer this if you’re willing to actually listen and not just wait for your turn to talk. Only offer this if you understand that their stories might be intense or might bum you out. If that’s a problem then please don’t offer to listen.
I take this same approach. If someone tells me that they have postpartum depression, though we are both depressed, I’m not an expert on her feelings. Heck, I just had to Google “postpartum” because I didn’t know how to spell it. Do you really think I know what the hell she’s going through? We aren’t speaking the same language. Yeah, every third word sounds like my language but that’s not enough.
So I tell her I’m sorry. I let her know that I don’t know what that’s like but I do have clinical depression and I know that it is very tough. I say that I couldn’t imagine what she is going through. I tell her that I’m praying for her and that I’m here if she needs someone who will listen. I make sure she knows that I mean it and then I follow through. If someone trusts you enough to raise their hand and speak up about their illness then you have a responsibly. Don’t screw ’em over.
The Bottom Line
If your friend trusted you enough to open up to you then don’t punish them for it by responding with ignorance. I know you mean well but, in the context of depression, what you mean carries very little weight compared to what they hear you say.
Be compassionate, ask questions so you can better understand their pain, and encourage them. Most of all just be there for them. When our depression gets bad we tend to disappear. Those closest to us are usually the only ones who notice when that happens. If you care about them make sure you work hard to be the guy or girl close enough to notice. It might keep them alive one day.
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