The text made me sit up straight on my bed, dreading. No no no, don’t say it, I thought. Don’t be depressed. You don’t need that. You don’t deserve that. You deserve happiness! And sunshine! Butterflies flying a cosmic duet with unicorns!
But bright, shiny good wishes can’t stop the darkness. So I found out my friend, half a country away, has been depressed half a year.
What’s worse than the helplessness you feel when you’re dealing with depression? The helplessness you feel when your friend is dealing with it. Okay, it’s not worse, but it’s terrible in its own right. Because I love her. Because I want to help, but even though I’ve known this gloom, I don’t know how.
The thing about depression is that it’s incredibly personal. There’s no universal cure. There’s no guaranteed timetable. I don’t have any miracle advice. I don’t have three easy steps to being okay. Like a broken bone, it takes time and treatment and a generous dose of hope.
I’ve been lucky. I haven’t experienced the dark empty ache for quite a while; in fact, for almost a year. I don’t know if I will again, because I don’t know if I have clinical depression or merely have had occasional bouts related to specific experiences. But I’ve spent enough years under the heavy blanket of melancholy that I’ve figured out how I need to respond. In my friend’s long waiting for healing, I can’t help much, but I can share the things that have helped me be okay while not okay:
— Indulge a little. Chocolate, Ray Lamontagne, mashed potatoes, napping, some wine, long country drives, shopping, pillow punching, Band of Brothers, crying – whatever it is that gives you solace or serotonin, do that.
— Give yourself a break. If you need to take a day off from your responsibilities, do that. Call in sick. Get a babysitter. Skip that event. Cancel your plans. It’s okay. Your health is worth more than perfect attendance or seeming like you’ve got it together. Take a day to sleep, to sit with your sadness, to not feel like you’re barely scraping by at the office or in class, to sit by the pool or lie in bed with the shades drawn. Give yourself permission to be not okay for a time.
— Trust your own experience. You will probably get lots of advice on how to fix yourself, as if you are a torn sweater easily mended. A lot of the advice will be well-intended – recommending yoga, spinach, prayer, a certain combination of vitamins – and those things are all generally good. But they may not help you particularly. Yoga may have provided great relief for your coworker’s husband’s aunt when she was depressed back in ‘04, but don’t force yourself to keep attending a class if it’s not helping you now. When melancholy, it can be so hard to make yourself do anything, even generally good things. So make sure you choose the battles that are swinging the war your way.
— Work with the good moments. Depression is an ongoing but, sometimes, not a constant experience. There are hours or days you feel like yourself, though they pass painfully soon. “It gets better, but it doesn’t stay good,” as my friend put it. When those better times cycle back to worse, it can be really defeating. The darkness can seem so much deeper for those passing flickers of light.
In the Pacific Northwest, whenever the midwinter sun comes out, people bare their pale legs, grab a Frisbee, football, or camera, and head outside. A fifty-five degree day means washing cars and taking hikes and generally acting like a bunch of kids at recess. We know the fine weather won’t last, but good golly do we enjoy it while it’s here. That’s how you have to approach a season of depression. Take advantage of the sunlight. Get some exercise, call your dad, plan your meals, pay your bills, clean your kitchen – all those good and/or necessary things that seemed overwhelming yesterday and likely will again tomorrow, tackle those while you have energy and motivation. Rejoice in feeling capable, happy, and okay. You’re doing great.
— Know when to get help. When indulgence or apathy become an ongoing pattern, when you can barely get out of bed, when reprieves come farther apart, when the crying doesn’t stop but the better times do, when thoughts of self-harm become tantalizing: Tell someone. Call a hotline. Look into options for counseling, therapies, support groups or medication – or if that’s too overwhelming a task, ask a friend to help you look.
It may feel like defeat asking for help, but it’s not. You’re recruiting troops, stockpiling weapons, and forming strategies in the war on depression. You’re setting yourself up to win, slowly but eventually.
— Remember you are not at fault. People may not understand. They may typecast you as lazy, self-pitying, incapable, wrong. They may call you a sinner or a failure. Hear me on this: You are not. You are doing the best you can. You are better than their judgements. Depression is not a choice or a punishment.
— Believe it will pass. One day the bad days will be the exception. One day the sadness will lift. The season may feel unending, but it has an expiration date. It may take longer than you’d like. It may take pills or trial and error. It may come back. But you will not be defeated. You will be okay. You are okay.