The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

Is Depression The New Plague?

How To Respond With Compassion When Someone's Depressed

When a bad depression looms, it's like that tornado in The Wizard of Oz:  my very first instinct is to jump in the basement and hide for dear life.  It's soothingly dark in the basement; and best of all, I'm alone.  There's no one to ask anything of me—I can't hear the phone ring or the knock on the door or the email ping.  It's just me and the fear and the frenzy, at least until it passes and it's safe for me to emerge again.

For years, people have complained about these extended absences I take from my life.  Not just complained, either:  I've aborted many a blossoming relationship and made a few bosses deeply concerned about my reliability.  But my avoidance still seemed worth it to me—more than that, it seemed inescapable.  When I'm depressed, I just can't engage in meaningful conversation.  Hell, I can barely speak.  And most of the time I can't muster up the physical energy required to pick up the phone or walk across the room to the computer.

If you've never been seriously depressed, I doubt you'll understand this.  If you have, you're probably nodding.  I'm writing this from the heart, and my heart knows only one truth:  when I'm depressed, I'm at my most Garbo-esque:  I want to be alone.

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But like most desperate wishes of the heart, it's complicated.  While I really and truly want to be alone, I don't want to be left alone.  There's a tremendous difference.

I want—I need—to know that I'm loved, that somebody out there cares about me, no matter how convinced I am that I'm the dregs of the earth and don't deserve to breathe.  It sounds simple, but it's taken me years in therapy and countless mistakes to make this scenario come true.  Here's a quick summary of what I've learned.

First of all, it's up to me to send a short email blast to the people who might be concerned about me:  "I'm going through a depression.  I'll be back in touch when it passes."

That sounds easy, but it takes enormous willpower to write those two trifling sentences.  Because it means that I've finally admitted to myself that I've crossed over to the dark side, that it's back again and I’m about to be imprisoned in Oz.  This is a terrifying admission; hence I never get around to writing that all-important email until things are at their bleakest.

But after that the tables are turned, and somehow this is the point where it always gets screwed up.  After I send the email, I either get inundated by calls and emails I can't and won't return—or else there's silence.  Nothing.  Not a word, not an inquiry, not a whisper of hope.  From people who supposedly adore me!

This is a complete enigma to me.  How, I ask you, can anyone know that a loved one is going through hell and not respond?  I don't get it, I never will.  I had a talk with my therapist, the wise Geoffry White, and he said, "People are afraid of complicated emotions.  They're afraid they'll be caught up in the depression.  It's similar to the way people respond to cancer."

But if I had cancer—even if I had the flu or a broken arm—I'd get flowers and offers of chicken soup and endless tales of other people's recovery.  You don't get this when you're depressed.  You get over-the-top intrusive offers to take you out to dinner, a walk, a play.  If you could go out to dinner, for God's sake, you wouldn't be depressed.  You get tons of well-meaning advice, all of which ought to be shoved back down the advice-giver's throat because there's nothing more demeaning and distancing than being told "you should" when you can't.  Or else, most mystifying of all, you get silence, the very last thing you want to hear.  It breaks my frayed and aching heart.

For all of you who may be doing too much or too little, let me tell you what's worked for me:

1)    A quick check-in message on my voicemail:  "I love you.  This will pass."  Or,

2)    A short email message:  "I love you.  This will pass."

Anything along those lines would mean the world to me.  You're not asking me to do what I can't.  You're not arguing with me about how I feel.  You're just reminding me that I'm alive, and that it matters to you.  Even if it doesn't to me.

So the next time someone's depressed, try it.  Don't leave them alone, but let them be.  You may just be saving a live. 

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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