This week is a series of posts about depression, anxiety, family issues, and other brainweasels, for the people who have come on over from CaptainAwkward.com's various open threads. Hello, welcome, and feel free to comment here.

I am also prone to depressive fugues. I refuse all treatment for these. I drop into them after sustained periods of my stress levels being way too high, and every attempt I've ever made to "do something about the depression" -- as opposed to doing something about the thing that made my stress levels skyrocket in the first place -- has resulted in me just digging a deeper hole to hide in.

Note that I don't refuse help for basic deficiencies that happen to be symptoms of the depression. I snork down NyQuil like it's going out of style when I have a horrible cold, and I have no qualms about treating the symptoms of misery either, even if it's similarly ineffective at getting rid of the root cause. If depression makes me stop sleeping, I march right the fuck out and get me a bottle of diphenhydramine tablets. Other people are encouraged to feed me and pester me to shower. It's just that all the things that are reputed to help with "clinical depression" do diddly for me.

Sunshine does nothing. I am not wired to be up early in the morning; doing this too much is one thing that precipitates a crash, in fact, because it means I'm missing sleep I desperately need. Exercise also does nothing except use up calories that I probably need for other things, because I have no appetite and, left to my own devices, don't really feed myself. Meditation does nothing, although telling people that you're going to go meditate makes them leave you alone for about half an hour, which is occasionally useful.

Mindfulness exercises are useless. I am mindful all the motherfucking time. It's how I do the Sherlock Holmes trick. I happen to enjoy it and I do not want the observant stream of consciousness to stop. The only time it's ever happened was when I tried SSRIs. Combined with the other side effects I had, it was terrifying, and the antidepressants got flushed with extreme prejudice. I have absolutely no idea if they would have eventually done something about my mood, because I lasted a total of a week and a half on fluoxetine, and about two and a half weeks on citalopram before I decided it was worse than the original problem.

A lot of people have helpful suggestions when you tell them how you feel. I hate this. I know everyone means well, but when I tell you I've been dealing with this for over half my life now, what makes you think you're suggesting something that a thousand other people haven't suggested before? The main problem is that other people, who are generally normal, are suggesting things that make them feel better. The things that make normal people relax and feel a little more all right with the world have no effect on the depressed. Funny movies, heartwarming books, bubble baths, nights out with your friends, cuddly pajamas, whatever -- the things that normal people view as pick-me-ups depend the person using them still having the ability to connect with some sensation, or experience something vicarious through someone else. Depression takes that away. You can appreciate that something is pleasant or funny, and even smile when socially required to, but the moment it stops, it's gone. Evaporated. You can't hold onto it. You can recall, intellectually, that sometime in the past you found this cheering, but you can't recall what it felt like to be cheered. It just isn't there.

If you are the person suggesting things, you need to understand that when your depressed friend says it didn't work, it does not mean 'this thing was insufficiently cheering'. It means it didn't work. Have you ever had a friend so enthusiastic about sharing some new interest with you, that clearly thrills them to death, and then tried it with them and discovered it left you completely cold? It's not awful or anything, it just evokes no reaction in you whatsoever. You understand that your friend loves it, but you don't now and never will grasp why they love it. And then you feel a little awkward having to gently explain to this happy raving lunatic that it's great that they adore this thing, but you feel totally eh about it and aren't really interested in doing that again, really, ever. It disappoints them, and that makes you cringe, because they were so happy and now you've spoilt it.

This is the same thing that happens whenever you get a suggestion from a well-meaning "helper". Every time you, the depressed person, try one of these things that people swear will make you feel better, and nothing happens, you get a little more disappointed. A little more hollow. It's just one more thing to strike off the list of things that might help. Watching that list get shorter and shorter is more disappointing still. Eventually you decide, for the sake of your sanity, that you are going to stop wasting time trying things now, so that you can stop being disappointed when they don't work. And on top of that, you're also very acutely aware that every time you explain to some other person that you've tried something and nothing happened, you're letting them down -- they were hoping they would be a help -- and that if you do this enough, they start getting annoyed at you for refusing all their suggestions, as if you want to be depressed.

It is infinitely more useful to ask depressed people, "What can I do for you?" Five times out of every ten, the answer is going to be, "I don't know." Your depressed friend is not being difficult. They are not playing hard to get, dangling the possibility of an answer in front of you so that you will chase them and pry and dig it out. They really don't know. They cannot think of anything you can do to make their lives easier because thinking takes energy and they don't have any. Getting out of bed is an enormous effort. Delegating things is out of the question. They do not go around thinking 'my life would be wonderful if only someone else would X'. This is beyond them. I get emo when I'm really sick. I once had a roommate ask me, with the best of intentions, whether I would like her to leave the window open or closed. I pulled the blankets over my head and wailed at her not to make me responsible for the state of the window. This is the level of malfunction we are talking about here. Every extra decision, no matter how trivial, is too much.

Another four times out of every ten, the answer is going to be, "Nothing." This is also not an attempt to get you to ferret out some deep-rooted grievance. It means you can do nothing to alleviate whatever is going on. You didn't cause it, and you can't fix it. Nothing means nothing, and if you keep pestering, you will actually be adding to the stresses already on your miserable friend. Feeling like the truth is unacceptable is one of the more isolating things about being depressed, and if you keep at it, talking to you will become one more social chore that your depressed friend does not want to contend with, and will therefore start avoiding.

The last 10% of the time, your answer will be likely something you think is petty and probably stupid, like, "Please do the dishes for me." Small mundane things pile up when you can't make yourself move from the desk chair. You can't eat or sleep or shower for someone else, but you can cook and wash dishes and do laundry for them. If you think your depressed friend will snap out of it if you can just chide them into getting up and doing all the normal quotidian things again, you need to turn right the fuck around and go occupy your time elsewise, because there are few things that make someone who is already stressed and miserable tank faster than being reminded they are a failure at adulting, especially from someone who tells them they wouldn't be if they would just try.

Depression is not feeling inadequate. It is coming to the logical conclusion that you're inadequate, because you are always overwhelmed and you think that as a normal person, you shouldn't be. The solution to this is that you aren't a normal person at the moment, any more than you're normal when you have the flu, but since you're not getting snot all over everything it's rather difficult to get other people to understand this. The more you try to ignore this, the worse off you are. All of the lying around unmotivated and disturbed sleeping patterns and eating behavior that depressed people do is illness behavior. It's the exact same thing people do when they have mononucleosis -- that's glandular fever, for you Brits -- except since there's no virus or doctor's notes involved, depression gets you yelled at a lot.

The only thing that's ever helped me is figuring out what made me collapse in the first place, not doing that anymore, and then giving it time. If I could ever get a therapist to understand this, I'd have one, but it hasn't happened yet. My friends cope with talking to me over IM while I curl up in my pajamas and sob for no reason, or they aren't my friends for very long.

Comments

  1. "I drop into them after sustained periods of my stress levels being way too high" and "The only thing that's ever helped me is figuring out what made me collapse in the first place, not doing that anymore, and then giving it time."

    Thanks for the advice. It's a lot better than nothing.

    It also sounds as if it's okay to feed the depressed person and do some of the chores that have piled up.

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    1. It's all right to feed the depressed person, as long as you don't make an issue out of it if your depressed person doesn't actually eat anything. If you're the one cooking, just make them a plate and quietly put it down in front of them. Do the chores if you want them done, and don't make a fuss about it. The depressive in question is still going to feel lousy about failing at being a functional adult that forces other people to pick up the slack, but this has nothing to do with you -- it's equally bad to feel like you're failing at being a functional adult because you're not eating anything and there's still a giant mound of dishes staring at you every time you walk into the kitchen.

      I've found Allie at Hyperbole And A Half is excellent at explaining these sorts of things. http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html in particular. It's unbelievably exhausting to deal with people whose main topic of conversation is how much they want to help. They can't, but they keep trying. It's out of compassion, but in my experience, mainly what this accomplishes is to make the depressed person at the epicenter of the effort feel like they're disappointing everyone even more by not magically getting normal again. It gets to the point where many choose to compensate by simply policing their behavior like mad. You can't do what the other people in your life want you to, and you're going to be miserable either way, so you commit to faking 24/7. It almost always eventually precipitates a breakdown, because all of your energy is going to pretending to be something you're not, but at the time it feels like the only choice that won't leave everyone else on the planet super upset with you.

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  2. Living your life so as not to bother other people gets exhausting, doesn't it?

    I do what I can (I have CFS and no energy and etc.), and try not to feel guilty that I can't do more, that I can't carry my share of the load, that my house is in need of serious cleaning and dejunking and...

    Meanwhile, what I want to do when I have some energy is write. It's a constant struggle to divert some of that little bit of energy to doing what I want.

    Eh - you do what you gotta do and hope you survive.
    ABE

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