Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How to help

With Robin Williams tragically dying from suicide last week, I think depression is on a lot of folks' minds in the aftermath of it all. Mental illness is one of those things that, while widely de-stigmatized over the past decade (I was very secretive as I sought treatment in high school and in college), is still one of those topics that many fail to understand. Of course, there are a number of exceptions. There are psychiatrists, social workers, therapists, counselors and various other care workers who see this kind of thing regularly. There are also folks that deal with some type of diagnosis themselves - this can range from mild Generalized Anxiety Disorder to the level of anguish that Robin Williams was apparently dealing with - the kind of profound sadness and hopelessness that drives a person to take her/his own life. There are also those dedicated and committed partners, family members and friends that strive to learn more and empathize when they learn a loved one is in anguish.

I used to fail to understand suicide and the thought patterns that led depressed and suffering folks down such a final and irreversible path. I personally never took that path because I did not want my partner, family and friends to have to live with the aftermath. No one can really help it when a person dies of natural causes. But if a loved one commits suicide, you're left wondering a lot of things. What did I do to cause this? Could I have prevented it from happening? Even in my darkest hole of a mood, I  kept in mind that it wasn't my destiny to feel soulless forever, It would get better. It had to.

Not everyone is lucid enough to come to that conclusion in the heat of a manic episode, though. I think I finally get that and it took losing one of the best actors of my lifetime to see that. I understand that suicide can be perceived as selfish because of what it does to those around the deceased. Until you've experienced depression on a level that goes beyond "feeling sad," or you have taken care of someone in this condition on a regular wouldn't understand. Failing to understand fully is acceptable, but it's not OK to judge. As I've come to learn this year, it's rarely ever  "OK" to judge. 

There are a lot of resources out there for folks that want to learn more about depression, anxiety and the like. Folks that suffer can explain it to loved ones in the best way they know how. And what I've learned is that, no matter how much I try to make people in my life "get it," some just don't or refuse to. And that's OK. That's not my burden to carry, nor should they feel guilty for not being able to relate on a firsthand basis. But how does a family member or a close friend help?

Well, there are a number of related Buzzfeed lists and HuffPo articles out there that have been very popular since Robin Williams passed away, so this topic is buzzworthy. These articles tell you what not to do. I can't tell you how many times I've had to bite my tongue when someone says something well-intentioned but unhelpful/offensive to me. You can probably see the teeth marks in my tongue. :) But instead of focusing on what people are doing wrong, I want to provide some perspective regarding ways to potentially help someone dealing with depression or any kind of long-term mental anguish.

Don't pretend like you get it and don't try too hard to. Educate yourself, but don't pretend like what you or your friend Sue is dealing with is the same as what the distressed person in your life is dealing with. Different people have different triggers, thresholds for emotional pain, clinical diagnoses...and the list goes on. Everyone is different. You are not the same as Sue. And Sue is not the same as your friend Harry, so comparing the still-depressed Sue to Harry, who "conquered" his depression using methods A an's doing Sue more harm than good. What you think may serve as motivation can make someone feel as though they're not living up to the world's expectations, or more specifically, yours.

Just listen. Agree that what your loved one is dealing with is hard. Thank them for sharing their story with you. Ask what you can do to help. "I hear you, friend...that really sucks that you're dealing with those feelings. Is there anything I can do for you?" Just knowing that there's a support system available that is willing and flexible means the world. At least it has for me. And if the person is dealing with social anxiety in any form, other forms of communication can  take the place of in-person support if the suffer isn't up to visitors or willing to talk it all out on the phone. Emails, cards, social media...the smallest I-love-yous do a world of good. And if someone isn't in a place to respond, give it time. Maybe they're not up for karaoke night, but a nice Hallmark card goes a long way. Or a reaffirming text. It's easy for others to move on with their lives and forget to include folks stuck in manic episodes because those folks aren't up for big, fun adventures and often push loved ones away unintentionally while suffering on the inside.

Understand that a depressed person probably doesn't want to be that way. I would gladly give up a limb (literally) to go back to the week before my breakdown and do it all over again knowing what I know now. Or to be reborn without the predisposition to being depressed and anxious. To be the kind of person that takes it all in stride. Also understand that depression does mean that a person may not have the capacity to be the most social, humorous, optimistic or romantic at this point in time. This may be finite, it may be permanent. It depends on the person. Recovery takes as long as it needs to take and there is no timetable for when a person "needs" to start feeling better so that others around them feel less awkward. 

I got told by a former supervisor once that I didn't "look" anxious etc. and this person was shocked that I'd been suffering. It's often said that when a person breaks like I did, it's from trying to be strong for too long. I'm learning in therapy how to give myself grace and permission to not be the best at everything this year. Do the same for friends and family that may be suffering.  

And take care of yourself. It can be hard to be around a person who is as her/his lowest levels of depression and fear. Learn how to care for yourself and how to be a good supporter through reading, therapy, co-therapy with the sufferer...whatever it takes. Lastly, throw away the practice of being judgmental. There's just no room for it. Unless you've walked a mile in someone's shoes...


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