It was close to midnight a few weeks into my senior year at university. I was looking at my planner – the one I’d decoupaged and filled out at the bright hopeful beginning of the semester – looking at the deadlines listed, but not caring.
This wasn’t like me. Sure, during my previous fifteen years of education, there had been assignments I disliked, reading I skimmed, projects I put off, papers I wrote slapdash and half-heartedly. But I always cared, overall. I always turned something in and felt disappointed in myself if it was subpar. I got good grades. I liked learning and loved college.
When I looked at my planner that night and didn’t feel excited for the classes I liked, resentment at the busywork, or concern that I had a big quiz tomorrow morning and hadn’t even bought the book yet – didn’t feel anything at all – a little red flag waived quietly in the back of my mind. I knew I should care. Why didn’t I care? Something wasn’t right. Something was, in fact, quite wrong.
But I ignored that flag. I didn’t do that reading. I didn’t take that quiz, or ever buy that book. I just didn’t care.
That was the first hushed sign that I was depressed.
If you’ve been on the Internet this week, or even just walked near a wi-fi hotspot, you have undoubtedly heard that once-and-future doodle-blogging queen Allie of Hyperbole And a Half is back, with a follow-up to her now year-and-a-half-old post on depression. It’s dark humor at its best, astute and relatable.
For me, the most insightful part of the post was the dead fish, or the idea that well-meaning people will offer alot of hopeful, unsolicited solutions – but not to the problem you have. They will think you are sad, not depressed. In a rut, not depressed. Ignoring God, not depressed. So they’ll try to make you cheery, try new things, pray more. Then it doesn’t work, and you resent them for not recognizing how dead your fish are and they get frustrated or confused because you aren’t better yet.
My senior year, I didn’t tell many people I was depressed. Those I did largely offered their love and support without overbearing advice. I was blessed with good friends and mentors.
But a few people, trying to be helpful, did give me some problematic guidance. If there are people in your life dealing with depression, I would recommend not ever repeating these things to them:
- “Read your Bible more. You just need more truth in your life!” Especially don’t say this as an alternative to counseling or other treatment. I actually did read my Bible more during this episode of depression (especially as I was starting to come out of it) than any other time in my life, and I prayed, reflected and journaled constantly. I spent lots of time in the Psalms and actually felt pretty connected to God. I would gulp down an obscure Old Testament book in a sitting, which helped me feel a little more like an accomplished human being (I read a book today – a whole book! Look at me, being a person who does things!). It was sometimes comforting but didn’t miraculously cure me.
Bad advice because: It assumes your depression is a spiritual problem; expects God will heal you quickly and fully if you follow step 1-2-3 of outward spirituality; suggests you’re at fault for not being a better Christian or for listening to the lies of the devil or Oprah or whoever.
- “Why don’t you just put on some makeup?” You may have noticed Allie draws herself in a hoodie. That detail of her story is alarmingly familiar. There is something so wonderfully womb-like about a baggy sweatshirt. It protects you, helps you feel invisible. And it takes no outfit planning or color coordinating. It is the uniform of self-loathing. It is the 100%-cotton, made-in-China embodiment of “I don’t care.” I threw on a hoodie with jeans, shorts, or boxers (oh hey dorm life) almost every day, for months. I avoided the draining task of swiping on mascara as much as possible. I didn’t look good, but I didn’t care.
Bad advice because: It suggests you’re just not feeling confident about yourself, you’re in a rut, you’ll feel better with a little glitz and glamour; it says that keeping up appearances is more important than dealing with your condition; it emphasizes how incapable you are of taking care of yourself. (And the last thing you need is someone giving you more fuel for hating yourself.) It also confuses a symptom of depression for its cause.
- “Just try harder.” This is often accompanied with a short list of specific things you should be trying harder at. Let me explain something about depression: You have no energy and no ambition. Just leaving your room or pulling on sweats takes a whole lot of trying hard. Getting through the responsibilities of the day takes a whole lot of trying hard. Doing good or therapeutic things like painting, praying, running, eating your veggies, going to counseling, talking to your mom: that takes a whole lot of trying hard – and even when you do those things (and I did, at least once I recognized what was happening), even when you expend all that effort, you might still be depressed. Someone saying “try harder” only worsens the feelings of hopelessness or failure.
Bad advice because: It assumes this is a character issue; suggests you’re just lazy or self-centered; believes you can heal yourself by thinking happy thoughts or building some character. It blames you for your depression, faults you for wallowing too long.
Depression doesn’t have a timeline or recovery a formula. Be wary of oversimplifying. Because despite good intentions or great effort, no amount of Obadiah, makeup, or trying can resurrect dead fish.