Recently, when I’ve talked about depression (especially how poorly I fare in isolation), some people in my life/social media have — with, I’m sure, the best of intentions — said that I’m strong or determined or whatever. Even my therapist called me strong recently.
I know they mean well, but I really, desperately want them to stop. Because I’m quite sure it’s not nearly as true as most people think.
When I got out of the hospital after having Guillain-Barre Syndrome, I got told quite a bit how strong I was. When I saw my friends again, when I’d explain source of my limitations to new people, I’d get told that I was so brave or resolute or whatever because they could never have withstood what I did.
The reality was that a) I didn’t have a choice and b) it’s not like I weathered it steadfastly. No, I cracked. Big time.
For example, the ICU doctors put me on blood pressure medication because I was so stressed that my blood pressure shot up. My heart rate was steadily over 160 beats per minute for multiple weeks.
Also, I had panic attacks when they tried to elevate me from a completely prone position.
And I got so frustrated with limited communication that I threw fits when it would take too long to express myself. Those fits consisted of me violently whipping my head back and forth. (My head was the only part of me I could move at that point or I’m sure I’d have thrashed more.) I would only stop because Mom would beg me to and/or start crying, because at that point she was emotionally threadbare (and was also afraid I’d hurt myself).
The problems didn’t stop after I got out of the hospital. No, I got free and promptly went into deep, deep denial. How deep? Here’s a conversation I had with my therapist:
“So you were on life support?”
“But they had you on a heart monitor?”
“And they were feeding you through a tube? You couldn’t eat on your own?”
“And you were on a ventilator because you couldn’t breathe?”
“So you were on life support?”
So no, I was not strong. I broke. And the illness/hospitalization left deep scars on more than just my body.
As I said, lately I’ve had a few people in my life, Facebook, etc. assure me that I was strong and capable. The implication being, I think, that I wouldn’t let isolation-induced depression get the better of me.
As much as their hearts are in the right place, those types of solicitudes don’t help. In fact, they can hurt — all because of how depressed brains process things.
How depressed minds work
Depressives’ brains already have disdaining, mocking dialogues going on at least intermittently. Sometimes they’re unending. They tell us that we’re weak. Pathetic. Malingering. A burden. And so on and so forth.
The burden/malingering part is key because it makes us not want to admit that we’re having trouble coping. After all, we don’t want to be an onus to those around us. Besides, our brains have us convinced that if we just tried harder — if we were good enough people to just try harder — we could be okay like everyone else.
So when we do open up enough to admit that we’re scared and hurting and generally unable to cope… Well, know that it took a lot to get to that point. And know that we’re already wincing in anticipation of a backlash. We’re expecting the same type of disdain from the people in our lives that we hear in our heads. We’re anticipating it while also desperately hoping for the support we so vitally need.
And sure, that backlash rarely comes. But sometimes the support doesn’t either. Instead, we may get what people think is support to the tune of, “Oh, you’re strong and capable. You’ve got this.”
But often we’re not and we don’t.
Sometimes it’s okay
Don’t get me wrong: I know logically that everyone who says this is trying to be helpful. They’re trying to cheer me on, to make me believe in myself. And that comes from a place of kindness. But what these responses actually boil down to is not believing that I know my limits.
And sometimes those limits are in my head. Because yes, depression can warp your brain so that you don’t think you can handle things that you are in fact, physically (if perhaps not emotionally) capable of. Like, say, dishes.
And something like that, a chore? A chore you can cheer me on about. I still may not love it — because I genuinely don’t feel able in the moment — but I can accept that on some level I can do it. Probably. Eventually. But maybe not, like, today.
Depressives know ourselves
But if a depressed person says that they’re genuinely hurting, let alone afraid for their safety… That’s a whole ‘nother story. Then “cheering them on” is akin to saying they don’t know their emotional limits. That’s a very different beast.
Yes, we’re physically capable of, say, FaceTimeing. But emotionally, the idea of verbal conversation (versus text where we can edit responses or cry unseen) may be exhausting. Just sustaining a conversation, let alone enduring awkward pauses, can be rough.*
So please don’t tell a depressive that they’re strong and will be okay. Because that may very much not be the case.
*Just for the record, my therapist and I agreed that I am going to start doing this to simulate the much-needed, in-person interaction. But know that it’s going to be hard — very, very hard — and take a lot out of me.
To be clear
Lest I appear ungrateful to everyone in my life/Facebook feed, I appreciate what people are trying to do when they show this kind of support.
But as I said, telling a depressive what they are or are not emotionally capable of is a problematic response, however well-meant.
Because yes, depression can distort thought processes. So your first assumption may be that it’s keeping the person from seeing their true potential or ways to make things better.
But the thing is, depressives do a lot of thinking and evaluating. We don’t always think good things or happy things. But we do think. We turn the same things over and over in our head.
So if a depressive tells you that they’re not capable (especially emotionally) of something, take a moment to consider that they have given it serious thought. If they say that an option you suggest isn’t viable, please assume they know their own limits (again, especially emotionally). Don’t insist that it’s the depression skewing their view.
Obviously, there’s always a chance that depression is skewing their view. But on the other hand, depressives want so badly not to be a burden to others that, by the time we announce that we can’t do something, we’ve probably evaluated the situation from a multitude of angles and possibilities.
And even if it’s technically true that we’re physically capable of another option, the fact that we’re saying we can’t means that it feels very viscerally true in the moment. That our depression is limiting our abilities, so that what we seem to be capable of and what we are actually capable of may be two very different things.
So to say that we have options when we insist we don’t can feel like people are denying our reality. Which isn’t good for our mental/emotional stability.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t suggest alternatives. But if we say they won’t work, please believe that we’ve almost certainly evaluated the option based on what we are currently emotionally capable of trying. So please don’t insist that we’re being negative or short-sighted if we say a suggestion won’t work for us.
The problem with “strong”
Back to the point of this post: If a depressive tells you they’re worried about their safety, please please please don’t chime in with how strong they are. It took a lot for them to admit that they’re “weak” enough to even contemplate suicide — or to contemplate the possibility that they would consider it in the future.
To us, it’s a deeply shameful admission.
So we don’t need to hear that we’re strong and resourceful and capable. That reinforces the idea that we’re just being wusses in the present, not living up to our potential. That if we were really trying, we could get through it.
Thus it reinforces this idea for many depressives that we’re not “good.” The logic is weird — as I said, depression warps thinking — but it goes something like this:
- We’re awful people who are a drain on everyone we care about.
- But somehow — with herculean effort and fake smiles plastered on our faces to hide our pain — we’ve convinced everyone in our lives that we’re worthwhile.
- Since we have people believing that, they think we are capable of more and stronger than we are.
- Therefore, good people must mean strong/capable people.
- We’re not capable of overcoming our depressive thoughts
- So we are not strong/capable and therefore not good people.
What you say vs what we hear
The fact is that few people can just think themselves out of depression. Most of us can’t logic our way to illuminating the many, many shadows the condition casts.
Meanwhile, saying someone experiencing depression is “strong” usually implies “strong enough to see the world as it really is” (rather than the fun-house-mirror version depression creates) and “capable” means “able to function through the pain and misery.”
Or that’s what I hear, anyway. I’m willing to bet most depressives hear the same things.
But many of us — probably most of us — can’t meet those statements’ standards.
I take a shortcut (and even then…)
To be clear and as regular readers know, I’m usually a high-functioning depressive. Outside of a pandemic — when the economy isn’t crumbling and people aren’t dying droves — I’m usually in a pretty decen mood and am able to run errands, do chores and otherwise manage my life pretty well.
But I’m only able to function, I’m only (normally) “strong,” because I have medications that even out the chemical imbalance in my brain. And when extra stress or anxiety rear up due to something like the prospect of long-term isolation… Well, the medications’ efficacy is strained. I stop being able to function as well as I normally do.
So when I say what I am or am not capable of in a stressful situation, understand that the parameters and/or abilities you usually hear about on here no longer apply. You may know what I’m capable of in a normal setting, but only long-time readers know what I’m capable of (or more correctly, not capable of) with acutely heightened depression. And even when things were bad, I wasn’t always completely detailed with how bad they got.
Thus if I say that I’m afraid for my sanity — let alone my safety — believe that there’s probably a very good, very real reason behind it.
And that reason is: I’ve been suicidal before. I’ve held a knife to my wrist, trying to imagine the physical pain, then comparing it to the prospect of ending the emotional, almost visceral pain I was feeling. I truly thought long and hard about it.
And I didn’t not kill myself out of strength or capability. I chose not to because I was too afraid of the physical pain — and, more importantly, because I knew it would kill my mom.
And hey, I guess all’s well that ends well.
But the point is, these experiences — the hospital and the suicidality — have made me acutely aware that I am not strong. I am very sure I have a breaking point. I’ve hit it multiple times, so no one else knows it better than I do.
So please stop telling depressives that we’re strong. Because most, if not all, of us aren’t.
Or perhaps we are strong, and it’s simply problematic to suggest that suicidality is a form of weakness rather than a very logical outcome when you’re in an extreme amount of pain. That’s a debate for another day.
The point is that we’re not strong by the popular definition: stoicism in the face of adversity. And it does no one any good — and most of us at least a small degree of harm — to hear that we’re too strong to even think that our depression could win.
Because most of us have been and/or will be felled by it at some point to the extent that we’re paralyzed or struggling to cope with basic life. So these cheering-on statements have the opposite of the intended effect and make us feel far more weak than strong.
Depressives: Does being told you’re strong help or hurt?
A reader asked me what does work in this case. Because I didn’t really say. I guess I don’t really understand why anything needs to be said encouragingly.
The reader said that it’s human nature to want to support or encourage someone who’s struggling. And that’s the thing — the problem — I think. Too many people conflate “encourage” with “support” and the two can be very different for depressives.
I think I think the problem with “encourage” is that it too often leads to that problematic sentiment of “You’ve got this!” Which is to say “You’ve got this [all on your own]!” Support actually means available when they don’t.
So if you must find something to say — if you want to be supportive — then my personal advice (results may vary) is to steer clear of too much actual encouragement.
If the person says they don’t know whether they can handle much more of X, Y, Z, then acknowledge what a hard time they’re having (rather than gloss over it, perhaps unintentionally making their struggle seem trivial) and then let them know you’re there for them:
“I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now. Just know that I’m here if you need to vent or cry or talk about something completely unrelated to get your mind off it.”
If any of you have ideas about what would help to hear, please feel free to put them in the comments.