Having Difficult Conversations: Depression Edition

The last couple of days have been hard for me. I’m moving out of my apartment and the whole “leaving the country” thing is starting to get real. That means my emotions have been all out of whack, and I’ve been trying to rely on the coping skills I’ve built up in the past year to deal in a healthy manner. One of the things that I’ve really been trying to practice is asking my friends for help when I’m in a bad place, particularly if I think I’m going to use symptoms. But as I experiment with this, I’ve noticed that there are some serious potential pitfalls to asking for help. As someone who wants to be a responsible adult who manages their emotions without demanding things from other people, I want to be able to ask for help without being manipulative, obnoxious, or clingy.

The first issue I’ve run into is that when I tell someone that I think I’m about to use symptoms (especially self-harm), it can come across as extremely manipulative. “Pay attention to me or else!” it screams. “If you’re actually busy and can’t make time, it is ALL YOUR FAULT if bad things happen” seems to be hiding under “I think I want to hurt myself”. Partially this is your support person’s responsibility: they need to learn that they are not responsible for your behavior, and that a request for help is not the same as foisting off responsibility. Oftentimes when we think we’re going to use symptoms we have to pull out every coping mechanism we have, and even when we do everything right we still slip up and do the thing we’re not supposed to do. That’s ok. Part of being a good support person is knowing that you can’t fix the other person or control their behavior.

All of that being said, there are better and worse ways to ask for help. Any “if…then” statements should probably be avoided (e.g. if you don’t talk to me then I will hurt myself). If you are capable of letting your support person know what it is you want from them, that’s also preferable (instead of just saying HELP, say “I want to talk to you/I want someone here/I want a giant hug and a bowl of ice cream”). One of the hardest parts of this for me is giving the other person a way to say no if they legitimately feel as if they can’t help in that moment. It comes across as super passive aggressive when you say “well it’s not important but…” or “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine…”. These things seem to imply that you really really actually do want and need the other person you just don’t want to be pushy about it. I have yet to find a really solid method of signalling to my friends that it’s ok for them to say no in nasty jerkbrain situations, but thus far the best method has been to let them know that I do have other people I can go to.

But there is some tension in trying not to put too much pressure on someone while also letting them know that you are really truly struggling. This does actually make a difference because a. if you want help it’s best to be honest about that rather than just trying to chat with someone and then halfway through sliding your problem into the conversation and b. your friend might be a lot more willing to make themselves available if they know what’s up. There’s a balance to be found between signalling that you really could use some help and that your support person should probably prioritize this interaction higher than any old chat, but also signalling that they have the space to set boundaries and take care of themself. I suppose this is just a microcosm of the struggle that is all human interaction, namely finding ways to get what you yourself need while allowing the people you interact with to get what they need as well.

So even asking for help is extremely difficult, but let’s say that you ask your friend for some time and they say yes: one of the other things that is extremely difficult is that when you’re in the midst of a depressive episode, your honest to god feelings are things that are not deemed socially appropriate. They’re things that no one knows how to respond to, they’re things that are ugly and gross and embarrassing. And quite often, they come with an intensity that means it can feel as if you’re beating your friend about the head and shoulders with your Sad!feels.

I have been on the receiving end of an interaction in which one party just throws all of their depression at me. It’s overwhelming and leaves the support person fairly incapable of doing anything useful or helpful. It feels icky and like the individual is fishing for compliments and over the top. Especially when the depression feels are of the self-hating variety, it’s like walking through a minefield (often because the person with the self hatred feels both wants to be contradicted and validated).

The problem is that when you are in the midst of feeling incredibly depressed, you really truly feel that you are the least lovable human being on the planet, and that you’re ugly and horrible and stupid and disgusting and cruel and selfish. And for me personally, I often just want to be able to say those things out loud to get them out of my head. But what do you and your support person do with those ugly words once they’re out in the open? How do you make them something that is ok to talk about and acknowledge and validate while also letting your support person pull you back onto the solid ground of facts and reality?

I mean, if I knew the answer to this I’d probably be making a lot of money off of an innovative therapy technique, but it seems to me that it might be a good idea to ask your support people to set up some ground rules with you before you’re in the midst of a shitty headspace. These might include: no invalidation (I get to feel however I want), if you have evidence that might change my feelings, please present it, or here is our secret signal for when I just need you to listen to how I feel. Conversations in which someone who has a mental illness can actually tell another person what they feel about themselves without being judged and without putting pressure on the other person to fix or reassure are few and far between, but they also have the potential to be transformative. While they are difficult and terrifying and vulnerable, they also illustrate to someone with mental illness that those bits they feel the most shame about are acceptable and wanted. I’m still working on my scripts for these conversations, but hopefully we can share them as we make them.

One thought on “Having Difficult Conversations: Depression Edition

  1. Kathleen W. says:

    Re: what to do with those ugly words once they are out in the open. I know people who have used two different techniques. I apologize in advance I f you’ve already heard of them and/ or have already tried them. They are to objectify the nasty, ugly feeling and then physically destroy it. In one, you take a large fruit or vegetable (pumpkin, cantaloupe, etc.) and you carve or draw a face on it (or any representation of the feelings). And you take a hammer or other “weapon” and you smash it. And you can curse it and yell at it all you want. “Take that, you low down worm!” You need to be willing to get dirty (fruits spray around when smashed) and gooey and to have a place that you can get gooey. I think the idea is to transfer the nasty ugly feelings into physical action that pushes back against the feelings.
    The other technique is to write down the feelings in all their ugliness. Express all of it as graphically as possible. I think you’re supposed to get all the feelings out onto the paper. Then you do some breathing exercises to create a little emotional space for yourself. And then you burn the paper. When I helped with this ritual, the person recited sort of a mantra of destruction, e.g., committing the feelings to flames and ash, letting the feelings blow away with the smoke, etc.

    I participated in both these techniques. I felt like we were doing something together and like I was kind of helping. And because it was more or less scripted out, I didn’t feel like I had to come up with perfect comforting words. I didn’t have to come up with anything actually. No guarantee that these will “work.” Just something to try if you feel like it.

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