Jessica Yin gives us a look inside depression, explaining why sometimes, the best advice is none at all.
Depression is not the same as sadness.
This is the first piece of advice I give those who ask for help on how to support friends with depression. It’s completely understandable that people who have never experienced depression would try to find an emotion they can relate to. However, it is difficult to offer advice or to sympathize when you can’t conceptualize what the other person is experiencing. Being depressed and having a bad day are vastly different experiences. Depression isn’t something that a good cry and some Ben and Jerry’s can fix. Encouragements like, “it will pass,” or “the pain will dull” are inaccurate, since you cannot guarantee that it will. It’s not really an acute pain we feel anyway.
Unlike a wound, depression is not concentrated in one area of the body. Even an emotional injury, like heartbreak, cannot compare to the fog that depression brings. The overwhelming, inescapable nothingness infects every inch of you like a paralyzing poison. The worst of days are not those when you feel sadness or anger. Rather, it’s the days when you feel numb, seemingly unable to muster interest in books, films –or even living.
When one experiences depression, everything feels pointless in this state of extreme neutrality. You can’t help but ask yourself: why go on when there is nothing apparently appealing enough to live for? Here is where friends can be particularly helpful, since leaving me alone to explore this dark train of thought will end nowhere nice. Though I may seem to prefer solitude to company, I do appreciate having someone there rambling about how annoying a certain professor is, or how idiotic a crush is behaving. These moments help get me out of my own head, and place me back into the real world –even if I don’t seem particularly impressed in the moment.
Depression often causes you to construct this apocalyptic world of futility, in which you slowly cocoon yourself, and the entrance of someone else in that world, whatever they are doing, whatever they are talking about, will help peel back the curtains and remind us of the possibility of life outside.
Additionally, sadness is rational; it has a cause and even if the answer to its cessation is time, at least there is an eventual solution. Depression is laying in bed listing all the reasons why you should be happy, why your life is actually great, and why you are incredibly lucky to no avail. You still are somehow unable to generate a singular care about existence and it’s frustrating because you can’t figure out why. So I wouldn’t recommend reminding your friend with depression about all the good things in their life, because I know that only makes me feel ungrateful, as if I’ve chosen this state of feeling dead inside as an act of teenage rebellion. I am rationally aware of all the reasons why I should be content, and I can list in my head everything I should be pursuing, but I just cannot –okay?
No one likes to see people in distress, and our basic instinct is to suggest how to improve the situation. Equating depression with sadness often results in well-meaning recommendations that focus on visualizing the future and a time when things will be better. However, saying that the sun will rise again tomorrow is not encouraging to someone that notes every second that ticks by with arrogant, unbearable sloth. It’s agonizing to acknowledge that the unstoppable march of time means that tomorrow will bring another day of making it through, of finding the strength, determination, and willpower to keep yourself busy enough to survive another sunset, and then another, and then another.
So, against all common sense, sometimes the best advice is no advice at all. Simply sit with me in the dark and hold my hand; join me in the corner as I try to fight the allure of eternal sleep. Let your presence remind me that I’m not alone. At times, being my friend is a thankless job, often feeling like an exercise in futility. You walk away with the sense that you’ve not helped at all, but trust me, you have, and I appreciate each time that you try and talk to a numb statue.
Supporting a friend with depression is not about leading them out of the darkness, because we’d probably resist your attempts. How can you help me find a way out that I haven’t already considered? Walk with me as I explore the maze that is my own head and support me as I try to find the different paths to getting better. That support will make all the difference to me. I will thank you eventually for just being my friend and staying with me. That is more than enough and all I would have ever asked for.