“I’m almost relieved,” I remember saying to my therapist, during my senior year of high school. It was the week after my mother’s long-term boyfriend passed away, the first totally unexpected passing of someone who had seemed much too young and full of life to be gone. And it broke me.
“I finally have an actual reason to feel sad,” I said.
Hearing it made it feel more true: I’d been dealing with inexplicable despair for a few years. I looked at my life: I had friends, I did well in school, I had my own bedroom and books at the ready -- what was wrong with me that I still often felt like burying myself for hours under the blankets, like everyone I knew hated me? Finally, I was experiencing a life event that matched this constant, nagging mood. I was devastated -- obviously, given the choice, I’d choose him being alive over pretty much anything. Yet there was still a part of me that felt comforted, like I could, at last, publicly fall apart and have a socially acceptable reason to do so.
I wouldn’t be diagnosed with clinical depression for another six years. It’s taken me about that amount of time to start talking about it openly. By its very nature, depression is isolating, but depression is also one of the most pervasive mental illnesses in the country. And women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, with about 10 to 25 percent experiencing depression at some point in their lives.
While I don’t head out each day holding a placard that reads “ASK ME ABOUT MY DEPRESSION,” the subject comes up often enough. I’ve reached a point where I can recognize the depression for what it is, remember the dark places it brought me and simultaneously side-eye it, knowing I have the resources to deal with it should I need them.
Mental illness isn't something anyone quite "figures out," but throughout the years I’ve picked up some "wisdom" on the subject. There are some things anyone -- even the most well-meaning friends and family members -- should understand about loving someone who struggles with depression. Here are six of them:
1. We might take medication for it, we might not -- but we hope you can trust our decision.
I resisted medication for several years in my “depression journey.” I believed that taking it -- and even discussing meds-- meant I was really, truly depressed. And worse, I would be a person who was really, truly depressed and too weak to fight it on my own. I wouldn’t even be a good depressed person. Way to go, self. Can’t even get mental illness right.
When I put it like that, doesn’t it seem ludicrous for anyone to question taking pills (if it’s recommended to them and they’ve discussed their options with a medical professional, obv)? I once heard someone compare antidepressants to insulin: You wouldn’t advise a friend with diabetes to simply “try harder” -- think of antidepressants in the same way.
2. Depression can make you flaky as hell.
Once, about two years ago, I tried to make it out to a friend’s show, but my brain kept getting in the way. It told me I looked terrible in my outfit, and that I’d just bring the night down if I showed up. I went three stops on the subway before I got off and turned back. I’d been crying the whole way out of fear of what people would think of me once I got there, and at the sheer effort even attempting to go out in public seemed to take. I shot a text to my friends, telling them I tried and just couldn’t make it out. (Isn’t it funny -- by which I mean, not funny at all -- that the same disorder that plummets your self-esteem to zero is also, at its heart, super self-centered?) If a friend with depression keeps bailing on group activities, know that it isn't you, and it's not because she doesn't care about your plans. Being an understanding friend here can go a long way.
3. Putting on a happy face in public doesn’t mean we’re “faking it.”
Contrary to what antidepressant commercials would have you believe, people with depression don’t look like glum cartoon frowny faces, or spend their days sighing and staring out of rainy windows. We contain multitudes, man -- some days, or months are easier than others. Most of the time I come off as a happy and sociable person, because that’s the version of myself that I want to project to the world. Clinical depression isn’t a reaction to a bad day or a sour mood -- for me, it’s a persistent thrum underneath the noise of everyday life that can grow stronger or softer, all outside of my control.
4. If we’re leaning on you too hard, let us know.
When I started going to therapy, my mind was being regularly blown apart and reassembled by the revelations I was having. I had a close friend who I shared everything with: my highs, my lows, my lower lows.
I didn’t realize how harshly it was weighing on her until she sat me down and told me it was too much -- it was too heavy to go into all my anxieties and fears each time we scheduled a hangout, and she didn’t like being around me anymore. It was a tough pill to swallow, but soon I understood that she was putting up a necessary boundary in order to preserve our friendship. The experience made me more careful about how much I share, in a healthy and useful way.
5. The “depressed” mood someone might experience post-breakup isn’t the same as clinical depression.
Saying something, like, “I totally understand what you’re going through, I was so depressed when my pet died,” may seem like a good idea. Wanting to empathize with a friend in pain is natural, but sometimes it can do more harm than good. Situational sadness after a difficult event is different than long-term, pervasive depression -- and it’s not a condition that one can “get over” or hope it goes away with time. I spent years mentally berating myself for feeling sad without a "legitimate" cause.
While we’re at it, let’s avoid using “OCD,” “bipolar” or any other phrase lifted from the DSM-5 to discuss one’s tendency to arrange books by the colors of the rainbow or your boss’s habit of frequently changing her mind. Just a cool rule of thumb.
6. Once you know, don’t feel like you need to handle us with “depressed gloves.”
It’s likely that a friend has disclosed her or his condition because you are someone she deeply trusts and respects (or you read about it on the Internet -- hi, everybody). Whenever I’ve told someone about my depression, it’s generally to explain something about myself, or relate to something I’m being told. It’s not so I can get a pass to be an a**hole friend or avoid legitimate criticisms. We can still handle the same conversations you'd have with any other friend, so don’t be afraid to treat your loved ones pretty much the same as you would have before they uttered the word "depression." We’re still the same wacky, complex friends and colleagues you knew before.