If you want to know how strong a person is, see how they handle feeling weak.
Last week was a long and miserable one, not least because when I woke up on Monday morning it felt like the color had drained from the world. Nothing tasted good, I had no energy or will to do anything, but all the guilt of doing nothing. As I dragged myself around the house in the early morning, half-coasted my bike to the shop and turned on the ovens, I knew that I was in a depressive episode.
I reached out to others- not for help, or even for pity, but connection. Lots of people responded, and I was grateful for that- but not everyone knows why or how to be helpful in those situations.
How do you help someone manage depression? You just be there.
One of the toughest things for neurotypical people to understand about depression is that depression is not logical. It does not need a trigger or a reason. Depression is literally a chemical imbalance in the brain causing, among other things, a drastic change in mood.
You cannot exercise, vibe, or gratitude your way out of a chemical imbalance. All of these well-meaning suggestions serve, at best, as a way to encourage the production of other chemicals (exercise and sunshine DO promote dopamine production, but if you’re pumping from a dry well…) and at worst, they are reductive solutions that make the depressed person feel guilty for not being neurotypical.
Believe me, depressed people know how blessed they are and grateful they should be. They know, and depression makes them feel unworthy of those blessings. Their internal monologue goes “Yes, I have all these blessings and people who love me. I’m just lucky. I don’t deserve any of it. They deserve better than my sad, stupid self.”
We are all human. We are all fallible, weak, silly, and often desperate to avoid admitting what we need- particularly when what we need is the thing that made our species powerful to begin with. We are at our strongest when we remember those things, and we are at our weakest when we ignore them.
In my case, I owned up to feeling weak at that moment and reached out to the world. I knew I had plenty of friends and well-wishers, some of whom also dealt with depression. I didn’t want help, pity, or advice- just to be seen and to know I wasn’t alone.
I wasn’t. Friends and family reached out with nothing more than an “I feel you.” “I remember you.” “Hold on.” “You are loved.” “Be good to yourself.” Others provided funny memes and jokes to distract me, and others encouraged me to play music, dance, bake, write, create. Some sent messages to check in on me. A few suggested “cures” in the form of exercise (I’m sure they weren’t aware I was in the middle of a twelve hour day in the bakery. I needed anything BUT more activity.)
I was still depressed… but I knew I wasn’t alone.
Some time ago, I’d heard a couple of Talmudic stories that illustrate why this feeling of connection is so important.
A rabbi who was famous for having healing powers was so sick his students thought he was dying. Another rabbi came to see him and said “Is your suffering dear to you?” The sick rabbi answered “No”, and his friend said “Then the suffering is in vain. Get up! You’ll be well in the morning.” The sick man recovered the very next day- but soon after his friend fell ill. The formerly sick rabbi asked his friend “Is your suffering dear to you?” When the rabbi answered “Yes,” he said “Then it’s purpose is fulfilled and it should depart. Get up! You’ll feel better in the morning.” And the rabbi did.
The other story about the two rabbis had one coming to visit the other and found him sobbing in his living room. “What is the matter?! You are respected, beloved in community and by your family, have time for leisure and money not to starve. Why should you cry?” The crying rabbi said “I am mourning all the beauty that the world shall lose this day. At once, his friend sat beside him and said, “Ah, now I understand. That is truly a mournful thing!”
Why didn’t the rabbis with supposed healing powers just make themselves better? Why did one just sit with the other? Because, in the words of the Talmud, “The prisoner cannot release himself from his bonds.”
When we hurt, we need to- are meant to- reach out to each other. Denying that- whether our emotions or that we need help at all- we deny our humanity, cripple ourselves, and endanger ourselves.
In our hubris, we have created a stigma against seeking help- especially men- that will destroy us.
Before I learned to deal with my own mental health, I had a little experience dealing with that of others- my wife. I learned quickly that, when depression or anxiety would strike her, the single best thing I could do was also often the most painful- just sit with her in it.
We hate seeing our friends and loved ones in pain. Our culture encourages that there’s always something we can do, a way to fix it, a way to help. Sometimes though, there isn’t. No magic wand. No cure. No quick fixes- and by trying to feel helpful, we can sometimes make people feel worse.
Instead, we need to learn that the single best thing we can do is sit with another person in their problems and mess. Sit there and stay there and remind them they aren’t alone.
It’s a hard thing. It feels simple and useless- but it carries more love and meaning than you can imagine.