January is a month that hoards memories for me. I can hardly look at the word “January” scrawled thick across the banner of a new calendar and not remember all that happened in this month three years ago. It’s all still with me.
I remember the plane rides back and forth between Atlanta and Connecticut. I remember the multiple doctors, all with their differing opinions about treatment moving forward. I remember the hotel rooms, sitting on the phone for hours with friends because I didn’t want to be alone. I remember the drowsiness of sleeping pills and the feel of the carpet against my cheek as I got down on the floor once again and begged God for a shred of hope, one small poke of light through the thick fog of depression.
Depression is never an easy topic to write about but I know it’s necessary. Today, as I was reading in Isaiah, I noticed the words: I have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners of darkness.
There are prisoners of darkness. This is an accurate description of how depression feels. Sometimes you feel like you are in this small, stone box. You’re stuck at the bottom of it. There’s no light pouring through the cracks. You can’t find a window or a door and you’re gasping for breath, pounding on the sides of that box in the hopes that someone would just hear you and let you go free. You’re stuck. It’s scary.
I get emails all the time from people asking me to write about how, just how, to walk with someone through the woods. Through the pain of depression. Through a dark valley of an unseen illness that steals sleep and daily ambition.
I’m writing now but with great hesitancy. Mental illness is such a tender topic and it’s important to just come out and say it: there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Each individual is different. Each experience with mental illness is unique. I don’t possess all the answers. Not even close. I am simply one person who deals with depression and it would be wise to gather the stories of others to make this narrative more complete. So here’s the little prayer I said beneath my breath as I wrote this: God, help me to be wise when writing about such a tough topic. Give me grace in the areas where I get it wrong. Highlight & amplify the places where I speak your truth the loudest.
I’d so appreciate your grace on this topic too!
You are not a lifeboat. The signs of depression may be pretty straightforward. However, figuring out how to respond to those signs is a different beast. You love this person. You naturally want to make it better for the one who is stuck in a thick fog. The first thing to remember: your presence is appreciated and essential but you can’t heal a person of their illness. That’s not your role.
Don’t get frustrated by this. You have many other roles you can take on. You can make the tea. You can let them crumble into your arms and hold them why they cry. You can listen. You can learn.
More importantly, depression is a heavy thing. It can feel burdensome. Depression, itself, is the burden. The person who is suffering is just the host of the burden. Burdens, however, are not meant to be shouldered alone.
“BE MINDFUL OF YOUR LIMITS. DON’T TRY TO HOLD THIS ALL ON YOUR SHOULDERS. IT IS POSSIBLE TO BE CRUSHED UNDER THE WEIGHT OF TRYING TO SHOW UP FOR SOMEONE YOU LOVE.”
Stay surrounded by a support system if you can. Be plugged in and be in communication with the other friends or family members who are walking alongside this person. Sometimes it takes a small village and hey, sometimes you may need to pull over on the side of the road and take a pit stop. That’s okay. I say this because it’s easy to start a journey with people but it’s harder to finish it. Take care of your health. Lean hard into your people as someone with depression leans into you. Exercise boundaries. Be aware of how you’re feeling as you offer another support.
Be a truth-teller. Much of depression is like hearing a soundtrack of lies blasting loudly in the background of everything you try to do yet being helpless to find the knob that turns the volume down. We need people to reach in and say, “Hey, I see you. I know the things you are believing right now but here’s some truth to sustain you.”
Remind that person of who they are. Remind them that they are not an illness or a failure. Depression is not a weakness. Remind the person you love that they are a fighter and that they, too, will come out of the woods.
It might be tempting to say, “Snap out of it. Get yourself together and just move forward.” You have to remember that the person battling this mental illness wants to believe the same things as you. They’ve tried to snap out of it. They are likely trying as hard as they possibly can so coercion to “get over it” won’t work. Be kind and graceful.
Sometimes it won’t seem to make any sense. And that’s okay, too. Depression is a hard thing to understand and the best thing you can say sometimes is, “Hey, we both don’t fully get this but what is more important is getting through this.”
You’re okay. These are my two favorite words in the English language. I use them constantly to remind others of how strong and brave they are. This is a big one: help is sometimes necessary and there doesn’t need to be a glowing orb of stigma around getting it. Doctors exist for a reason. Medicine exists with a purpose. Not everyone needs medicine but it’s okay if the door gets flung open.
It’s one of the most powerful things in the world to remind a person who is fighting through the dark: you’re okay. You’re okay and if you need me to, I will go to the doctor’s office with you. I will hold your hand. I will help you pick up the medicine and take that first pill.
Again, treatment is not a one-size-fits-all thing. I reached a point in my own journey where medicine was the only option to recovery and I still remember the friend who dropped me off at the doctor’s office. I remember her bringing me back to her place, tucking me in on the couch, and going to Target to pick up that first prescription for me.
It’s tempting to want to think you are crazy for having to take pills to make your brain better but that’s the last thing you are. You are not crazy. You are not a lost cause. I had to remind myself that each small pill was a step towards recovery. It didn’t mean I would take the pills forever. It simply meant that, in this moment, there was a little extra assistance and that was perfectly okay.
Another thing you might have to say: you’re okay. And it’s okay if you need to go somewhere like a hospital. It’s okay if you need more help.
It was two weeks into my medicine that my community and I made the decision to go to the emergency room. I wouldn’t have gone if people hadn’t surrounded me and said:
“IT’S PERFECTLY OKAY TO GO WHERE THERE IS HELP. DON’T BE AFRAID. DON’T BELIEVE THE LIE THAT YOU ARE BROKEN BEYOND REPAIR.”
Thoughts of suicide are a reality for some of those battling mental illness. It is imperative that we ask the hard questions and we follow-up with help options: Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about hurting other people? These are not silly questions and they need to be asked sometimes even if it feels uncomfortable.
Little victories. I owe so much of my recovery to a small band of women who surrounded me and refused to let me be alone. There were days where I just wanted to be left alone. They would invite me over. They would call and ask me to join them for errands. This is huge. Really huge. It would be easy enough to sit with a person experiencing depression and let them talk all day about their worries and fears. This won’t always be helpful though. Instead, plan something active. Propose going for a walk or doing a yoga class together. Ask them to join you on a trip to Target. These activities help a person get out of their own head and enter into the world. The depression will likely scream, “No! Just stay home. Just stay alone!” but it’s okay to be a little insistent. Even if you don’t feel it, your presence is a breath of fresh air to someone who is worn down by the prison in their brain.
There were days where all I wanted to do was run myself in circles around lies I couldn’t piece together.
“I WANTED ANSWERS BUT THAT’S THE THING ABOUT DEPRESSION: IT WANTS YOU TO OBSESS OVER THINGS YOU CANNOT CHANGE AND IT WANTS YOU TO BE HELPLESS TO MOVE FORWARD.”
One of my girlfriends, Chrisy, stopped me in the middle of obsessing one morning. She said, “Okay, we are not going to wallow in this anymore. I want you to get up and I want you to do something.” She instructed me to go to Target and buy a pack of thank-you notes. She told me to write a thank-you note to any person who’d been with me in this dark pit. She asked me to write down every tiny thing I did from now until the end of the day, in monotonous fashion: Went to Target. Wrote thank-you notes. Took a shower. Met with Heather.
Little victories are one of the best things you can point a person towards when they are in a pit. Little victories, stacking upon one another, help a person climb out of themselves and see the world once again. Depression is an illness that wants you to focus inward but action steps propel you forward. This is also a great chance to encourage self-care. It’s easy to neglect things like bathing, working out, or eating right when you are depressed. Just the thought of a shower can seem so overwhelming but breaking the self-care into baby steps, little victories to be met, helps a person feel empowered and capable of trying again the next day.
Help the person in your life count the little victories, no matter how small. Write them down or track them in a phone. Rejoice with them. Celebrate the smallness. Grab their hand and assure them, “Little victory upon little victory, I will walk with you through the woods.”