Six Supportive Things To Say When You Don’t Know WTF To Do

As some of know firsthand and many of you may have gleaned both my life and my self have been in  major transition for the last two years. Most of you also know I live with Major Depression and fairly serious, chronic back pain with various and sundry complications. These things complicate my life by significantly affecting the quality of my life.

I’ve had some interesting experiences with who people can sometimes be unintentionally insensitive, because they simply don’t know what to say and feel awkward and embarrassed about not knowing what they can do to help.

So this post is a list of a few the warm, cool and supportive, things that people have said to me, that have helped me get past my most recent depressive episode. It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, but anyone wanting to support someone struggling with depression could do a whole lot  than taking a look some of these.

You’ll note I’ve left out, “I love you” and “how are you?” which can be  somewhat double-edged, depending on who’s saying them and how they are said. “I love you” is usually a very positive and helpful thing for me to hear, but it has also been said in a way that increases my sense of guilt and worthlessness when I’m feeling particularly icky– “but I love you!” = “how could you think of doing that to me?”. “How are you?” when asked in sincerity can express a genuine desire to hear how I’m coping, but all too often is an empty question asked by polite people who really don’t want to know.

1)  “Here’s my number.  Call me any time.  And I mean any time.”  

An interesting feature about my depression is just how hard it makes it to reach out to people. As I sink deeper into my  black hole, my ability to connect with people – something I usually feel is one of my strengths – slowly falls away. First, socializing in groups is typically not my thing on a good day and attempting small talk and polite banter with people I don’t know when I’m starting my ascent into my dark  hole is excruciating.

Next, I isolate. I stop wanting to meet friends on a one-on-one basis. Around this time, the idea of speaking to people on the phone starts to become yucky too. Even interacting with friends on the Internet becomes a draining, monumental task when normally Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting are always ways I can communicate, if all else fails.

In my last significant depression, I became so socially withdrawn that I had all but stopped shopping; the basic please and thank you, the smile and the eye-contact,  had become too difficult. I realized that I was becoming almost phobic about social interaction. If I went out, I  headed for what looked like quiet areas; if other people moved near me, I moved away, terrified or irritated I might end up having to speak to someone. Sometimes I would go a whole day without uttering a sound and wonder if my voice even worked any more.

So when someone offers me their phone number during a depression, I am sometimes 99% sure I won’t ever call them although I may text. But that doesn’t actually matter; it’s the offer, the genuine attempt of a loved one, friend or associate willing to put themselves at my disposal, which helps. Someone cares, and they want me to know it.

2) “What can I do to help you find balance?”  

The person who said this is also one of my dearest and closest friends who gets me so we know one another well. She probably doesn’t even remember saying it. I couldn’t actually think of anything specific when she asked me, but I knew from her question that if I should ever need to be entertained for a little while, someone to talk to, or other practical help of any kind, she would do what she could to make it happen.  I particularly liked that she did not say, “What can we do to make you feel better?” or, “What can we do to get you through this?” She simply dropped her question into our conversation as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There was no wanting me to be fixed, to hurry up and get better, but simple faith that my balance could, and would, be regained over time.

3)  “That must be very difficult.” 

There are a few people in my life who take time to listen to me, and don’t say very much other than this. They sometimes ask questions, but they don’t solicit advice; they don’t offer an anecdote of a similar experience; they don’t try to suggest things aren’t as bad as I think they are. They simply acknowledge that what I am going through sounds as if it must be very hard to deal with and I feel both heard and listened to.

4)  “I know you’re taking your meds, but maybe they’re not working right?”

I was explaining to  a friend (who also lives with chronic pain and depression) that I didn’t understand how I could be becoming depressed again and having anxiety attacks, because I was doing all the “right” things. I was taking my medication as prescribed, reaching out to other people, and writing daily. Without realizing it, I had begun to believe that the treatment infallible and the depression and anxiety I was experiencing was caused by my failure to respond to it. This friend helped me to see that the old treatment was no longer working for me, and it was time to try something different. I left her having promised that I would call my headshrinker right away for at least a medication review.

5) “I’m not going anywhere.” 

Here’s another depression Catch-22. When I become depressed, I start to worry that Cherokee won’t want to stick around, because I’m depressed, easily aggravated and boring. This thought makes me feel more depressed, so I become more boring. Round and round it goes! I’m sure it must be tedious having me doubt his commitment, but he’s been amazingly good at providing the steady, constant reassurance that I need to hear when I need to hear it.

A number of my friends have expressed similar sentiments. On hearing that I don’t feel ready or able to socialize at the moment, they have gone out of their way to let me know that they will still be there (as will the opportunities to meet up) when I’m feeling more like myself again. I appreciate having that spelled out for me.

6) “Just do the best you can.”  

I love this phrase.  When I started working on keeping this in mind, I was determined to “do it right”. I became discouraged as I kept not meeting my own impossibly high expectations for my self. My AA sponsor helped me to see that I had missed the whole point of the exercise: the aim was for me to learn to be gentle with myself, in fact to be generally less judgemental and more accepting of how I am feeling. You can’t put in a full hour’s writing practice every day?  Practice as best you can, for half an hour, ten minutes, even five. You feel uncomfortable with a certain type of meditation? Explore that feeling as best you can, and once you have played with the boundaries of your discomfort, switch to something which seems a better fit for you.  Your back won’t let you sit on the floor for 40 minutes at a time? Sit on a chair, lie on your back; try a stool, a cushion, a beanbag; try moving meditation, mindful yoga, a walking meditation, Qigong exercises – practice and do the best you can.

I’ve tried to apply this philosophy to the business of living as a person living with depression.  For example, I know it’s best to eat healthy, avoid sugar and junk food, etc, but when I’m very down I can only make the best food choices I can. I’m not always successful, of course; I still beat myself up fairly regularly for not doing “enough” of anything but if I know I’ve been doing the best I can, on any given day, it’s okay to ease up on myself and try to relax.

Looking over this list a few themes emerge for me:

  • It’s really helpful when people are able to listen and let me be, without trying to fix me or fix the situation.
  • I really appreciate it when people are honest about not knowing what to do to help.
  • The people who love me and care about me also have a very important role in helping me see things and myself as they really are, especially when I am trapped in spirals of negative thought and feeling.
  • I understand that it may make people very uncomfortable, but denying the existence of my stuff is very dis-empowering for me. Good friends and good healthcare providers accept my version of my experience.