Alrighty chums, it’s time to talk about a difficult subject. Everyone ready? Okay.
It’s time to talk about depression–but not the personal experience of depression. It’s time to talk about what happens to a person when someone they love is depressed or suicidal. Buckle in.
I want to start with a brief disclaimer: this is not a post in which I will complain about people being depressed or imply that they should “just get better already.” Depression is (and let’s all of us get this through our heads right now) a real and potentially very severe illness. For many people it’s not even connected to their circumstances–it is simply the cause of a chemical imbalance that they have no more control over than a broken arm or a genetic disorder. So let’s get this straight right off the bat: depression is serious, and should be taken that way, it can be deadly, and offering (HEALTHY) support to a depressed friend or family member should be a high priority.
This post is about what happens to people who can’t always figure out how to give that healthy support. I am one of them, I’ll tell you that right now. Sometimes it seems to me that I can trace a straight, unbroken line of depressive episodes (experienced by a variety of different friends and family members) all the way back to the 7th grade. Some of them, especially the ones experienced by friends in middle school, were more fleeting than others, but the point is that I started accruing experience in this area pretty early.
It’s not easy. Not for a second do I believe that my experience has been worse or more important than those people in my life who have battled this incredibly debilitating illness, but I also can’t go on pretending that it wasn’t extremely difficult for me or that I didn’t make some critical mistakes (mistakes which hurt me more than anyone else) while trying to be a good friend.
The closest I have ever come to losing a friend was the summer before my sophomore year–that was definitely the worst case I’ve seen. The kind of deal where they text you at 3 AM just to say goodbye, and you have minutes to do something before it’s too late.
Right now, someone even closer to me than that is barreling down the same path, and I find myself thinking about all the mistakes I made two summers ago, and how I can do better this time–approach this from a healthier angle.
That’s why I’m compiling this list of reminders to myself, and I’m sharing it here just in case someone really needs to hear this right now.
1. You are NOT superman. You can’t save anybody, no matter how much you want to or how hard you try, because it’s not within your power and, more importantly, it’s not your job. You are not a specially appointed guardian angel.
2. People will ultimately do what they want to do, no matter how often you intervene. That hurts, but you have to understand it. My own therapist (I told you all these episodes affected me) worked really hard to get me to understand this. He once had a patient tell him “I could stab this pencil through my eye right now and there’s nothing you can do to stop me,” and that patient was absolutely right. That is why human beings have free will and mastery over their own actions. If someone wants to hurt themselves that badly, you can try to get them some help but YOU can’t always stop them.
3. Reach out to other people. Seriously–it doesn’t matter how much your loved one wants to “keep this all a secret,” if things get bad enough, you need to start reaching out for help. This sounds like pretty simplistic advice, but I learned that, when you’re actually in this kind of situation, it’s harder to do than it seems. It’s happening to me right now, actually–it’s a complicated situation and although I know that very soon this person is going to need help, I find it difficult to reach out because of the complex nature of their relationship to me.
4. On a related note: YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED. Get that through your head. Unless you went to school for psychology and are a practicing medical professional, you are not qualified to give your loved one the help he or she needs. I don’t care how empathetic you are, I don’t care if all your friends come to you for advice, I don’t care how much you love the person, I don’t even care how much THAT PERSON says you help them. YOU. ARE NOT. QUALIFIED. And if you think your loved one is really on a slippery slope, you need to get them help. You can’t play around with a person’s life just because you have an inflated ego or a savior complex. I learned that the hard way, people–please trust me. The damage you could to a person and ultimately TO YOURSELF is not worth it. Stop feeling special.
5. Depending on the situation, people may not listen to you. Remember that friend two summers ago? I called their parents. Multiple times. I called their father on the night I got that goodbye text and still, STILL, nothing was done until that friend (thank God) called a hotline I had given them and the hotline workers evaluated the situation, made a decision, and sent police/ambulances to the house. Some people–especially parents–just don’t want to believe that this is happening and, frankly, don’t know what to do about it. If things gets bad and it’s safe to tell the parents, TELL THEM. Seriously, don’t be shy. But even if you do, they won’t always take it well and they won’t always do something about it, so keep reaching out to other people. Call school counselors/nurses, look for support wherever you can find it.
6. Your depressed loved one is going to get angry with you. In fact, if you “out” them to other people and force them to get help, they may be so angry that they’ll never talk to you again. Or maybe they will, when they calm down and realize that you made the only possible decision. The point: a friend or family member who won’t speak to you but is alive and healthy is ALWAYS better than a dead one. That should be obvious.
7. You need support too. Constantly worrying that someone you love is going to kill themselves can do a number on your nerves. It can make you obsessive about taking text messages and calls, it can severely interfere with your life, work, and especially your sleep schedule. YOU need someone to talk to as well. Whether it’s another trustworthy friend, a parent, a sibling, a school counselor, you need to find some support for yourself–preferably from someone who can look at the situation more objectively than you might be able to. You can even call those depression/suicide hotlines yourself–they’re incredibly nice people who will give you real, tried and true advice–they know what they’re talking about.
That is all I have for now, but I’m pretty sure this list could be ongoing. Watching someone you love spiral out of control is not a fun process–it’s not easy on anyone. So while you’re trying to be a good friend, child, sibling, remember that you need love and care as well, or you might end up following the same path to self-destruction. I still, to this day, have nightmares about that friend from two summers ago, and we barely even talk now (unrelated circumstances). And all those nightmares still center around one fear: the fear of being too late, of not doing enough to “save” somebody I love. I should have made myself realize from the beginning that I don’t have the power to save anyone anyway.
I don’t for a second regret that I’ve been a source of support and comfort to loved ones who’ve needed it. But I do regret the unhealthy way I did it, sometimes. I regret forgetting a lot of the things I mentioned in that list. So I hope this post has been a reminder to anyone who is going through this. I know it’s terrifying–my heart goes out to you, and I wish you the best of luck.
Some resources, if you need them:
If you are in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)