How to better care for those who are suffering
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that all times of great expansion come with great decay, and depression is a tragic disease that is growing with quite an alarming rapidity, a rate which seems to coincide with our societal expansion. Depression has grown to become the leading cause of disability in our world globally, meaning 1 in 4 people will not only develop major depressive disorder, nor does that include all of the people who continue to labor and work through their diagnoses or even undiagnosed depression, but a full 25% of us worldwide will be considered disabled because of their depression. This means, of course, that depression will likely touch every single one of us at some point in our lives. But decay is not the whole story of us as individuals. Decay is not the beginning and it isn’t always the end. Nietzsche also etched into his notebooks in 1887:
“There is an element of decay in everything that characterizes
modern man: but close beside this sickness stand signs of an untested force and powerfulness of the soul.”
If we’ve chosen to stand by those who’ve been stricken by the disease of depression, there are things we can do to better their lives, and while some of them may seem counter-intuitive, they can greatly affect the outcome of both their well-being and ours, which can feed off of one another and create a microcosm that we can enjoy together — one that is rich and fulfilling to the best that it can be. The fact is, love is an extremely powerful medicine and the consequences of perceived social isolation can be devastating for a person struggling with depression. Depressed people need love, just like we all do, and these are some not-so-common things that I’ve learned over the course of my life of loving others afflicted by major depression.
The Pendulum Swings
There will be moments when the ones we love are lucid, sensible, seemingly “themselves,” and there will be other times when they’re quite the opposite. This is just the nature of mental illness, and a part of that is understanding and recognizing the pendulum swings that come along with depression and other illnesses. We often expect people going through problems to just become their problems — that is, we reduce them to just the traits assigned to those who suffer from said illness. But this is not only a poor way to view the illness, it’s a way of objectifying our loved ones. What we need to understand is seemingly counter-intuitive, that they are both the people and the illness at the same time, and can fluctuate between the two in a gradient containing various degrees of each.
That said, some of the things they say in the deepest throes of their suffering may shock and startle us, though it’s important that, while we take them seriously and treat them as candid statements of who they actually are, we understand that this personality they show us is variable, rather than static, and may change in as little as a few hours. Depressed people might be depressed all the time, but that doesn’t mean they seem depressed all the time, and the degree of their depression will likely change over time. understanding this dynamic nature and flexibility of our loved ones is a vital way to keep calm when difficult times arise and be the best person we can be to play the appropriate supporting role that our loved ones need.
The Value of Space
Sometimes, distance is the best support you can give. I know how counter-intuitive this seems, especially how it feels in practice, but it’s true, and while you’ll find places aplenty which give praise to the merits of simply “being there” for our loved ones when they need it most, few, if any, discuss the very real importance of not being there when our presence may be something of a challenge for them to deal with. To give an example, have you ever been in a really bad mood and someone keeps pestering you with questions, “What’s wrong? How can I help?” The truth is, this can be an annoyance to people who are going through any troubling situation.
I’ve found that there’s an important balance to be struck here, where the people we care about need us and our support, but we also need to know when to give them the space we need. A lot of this will simply boil down to testing the waters and seeing how they react to our supportive overtures — if they tell us to go away, or worse, become angry or more depressed with our presence, we need to not take it personally, and understand that they’re in a significantly darker place than we are.
You Can’t Always Win
One important thing to keep in mind is that you simply can’t always win — you can’t always get your way and that’s okay. While we may be inclined to just take them out and try to enjoy a stroll through the park in the sunshine, or maybe laugh over a glass of wine, but we need to realize that those things aren’t possible — right now. That doesn’t mean we write them off for good, but that we need to wait for them to also feel up to what we’re thinking might be a nice time, and we need to not place any expectations on them to “cheer up” or enjoy themselves like we imagine in our minds. How easy it is to imagine wonderful scenarios of a perfect world in our minds, scenarios which simply aren’t on the table at the time.
No matter how much you debate, you argue, try as you will with vigorous logic, facts, and even pie charts and graphs if you may, you can’t always expect others to see your point — especially if they’re depressed. Depression is a disease of much more than the mind, it’s a disease of the actual brain that can even lead to completely delusional thinking at times, as the work of modern science has often shown. There are actually cases in the medical literature of full-blown hallucinations, manifesting in some cases of depression, and with this in mind, it’s no wonder that dealing with our depressed friends and loved ones can be so tiresome and challenging. It’s difficult to see that our perspectives are fundamentally different, that our framework of reason doesn’t resonate with someone because of fundamentally different premises which shape our wholly different worldviews.
It’s Their lives
No matter how close we may feel to the person we care about suffering from depression, no matter what roll we feel we have in their lives, or the type of dynamic we have with them, it’s of the utmost importance for us to remember that it’s their lives. Perhaps we dehumanize them a little by thinking that it’s just the depression talking, or, because we’re not suffering as they are, we somehow know better than they do what’s best for them. This is the antithesis of what it means to actually love someone and support them in their lives unless their idea of what’s best for them will cause direct and demonstrable harm. It’s very important for us to realize that no matter what their depression looks like from our perspectives, it’s ultimately their lives to live and not ours to control.
What is absolutely vital to realize here is that we have no control over their depression — we can’t overcome it with all of our will and emotional energy that we can manage to muster, none of it can compete with the nature of the illness. It’s important for us who’ve chosen to love and stand by a depressed person to realize and come to full acceptance of the fact, that our unrelenting love will not remove their symptoms and the presentation of their illness — but it’s still a miraculous thing.
We need to accept that this kind of love is one of the most selfless kinds of love, the support, care, and pure psychological grit that goes into loving someone else when the obvious fruits and rewards that come with relationships and friendships of all types aren’t present. Perhaps we can’t eliminate these symptoms or wholly remove the suffering of our loved ones and that’s okay because simply by doing what we can and being mindful for them, we’re doing something that so few achieve in their lives — loving someone unconditionally which comes with its own rewards in itself, some of the richest rewards a human being can experience. No one ever said loving someone with depression would be easy, but in my opinion, it’s definitely worth it.