I’m just going to say it. I have major depression, the clinical, needs medication kind.
I’m pretty open about it and I freely tell my friends and family. Much of the time, they don’t know how to respond. I know it’s hard to know what to say. All the “what not to say” lists make it especially intimidating to say anything at all. We’re afraid to sound dumb, be offensive, or make it worse.
I get it. I really do.I don’t always know what to say to other people’s struggles with cancer, diabetes, or infertility. I haven’t been there. In the same way, people who have never experienced to mental illness often have no idea what to say to someone who is struggling.
Yet it’s important to recognize that while no one can fix mental illness by sending happy thoughts, encouraging words can still have a profound impact on a struggling loved one’s improvement. There are many positive things you could say, but just one that I think is the most important. In fact, I didn’t even realize how important, until someone said it to me.
I was spending the weekend with my family for a holiday. The previous several months had been a battle but I had moved from the depressed-in-bed stage to the depressed-but-functional stage of recovery. I was doing quite a bit better that month, but it was still a 50/50 toss up between good days and bad days. I was nervous about which it would be during the holiday.
The weekend started off well on Friday. I had a lot of energy and I was really happy to be with family. Actually, I was happier than I’d been in a long time. But after expending all that energy and happiness, I was depleted. OK, that’s not actually how it works, but that’s how it felt. Saturday was still enjoyable but it was a struggle. I needed some alone time and wasn’t up for anything involving lots of energy or loud noises. (Try making that demand with a three year old in the house. Ha.) But so far things were somewhere between “really good” and “meh”.
Then Sunday happened.
I woke up in a fog. Getting out of bed took more energy than I thought I could possibly muster. Walking to the car to go to church felt like a marathon. All I wanted to do was sleep. My emotions were shut down, except for irritability, which seemed to be my response to every situation. I could barely communicate about anything, never mind what I was feeling. It was truly a bad depression day.
Even though getting out of the car and seeing anyone felt like more than I could handle, I somehow made it through church and lunch. But I know I was a grump. I almost ruined it for everyone and even though I tried to just be miserable by myself, I am quite sure that I failed. I was not very much fun to be around, and I knew it. I wanted to just disappear and let everyone be happy without me.
The next day I texted my brother and apologized for being late to church since he had been preaching that day. He responded with the best thing anyone has ever said to me about my depression. Although he may not have known it, I also think it’s the best thing anyone could say to someone with mental illness.
“I hope that you are feeling better today as you had hoped and you were able to get some rest. I enjoyed being with you yesterday just as much as on Friday. See you at the dinner tomorrow night!”
That’s it, you say? Yes, that’s it. Let me break down why this was such an important and meaningful statement.
“I hope you are feeling better today.” He acknowledged that the version of me he had just seen was not the real me and he expressed that I could possibly feel better than I had the day before.
“I enjoyed being with you yesterday just as much as on Friday.” This is by far the most important part of his statement. He said that he enjoyed being with me just as much on my worst day as he did on my best day. That’s profound. That is an affirmation of loving who I am as a person, regardless of what level of fun, happiness, or enjoyment I bring to the table that day. The best thing you could say to someone with mental illness is, “I enjoy you, regardless of whether you are happy or not.”
Lastly, “See you at dinner tomorrow night.” Even though I have depression, he still wanted to see me. He made plans and wanted to spend time with me in the future, regardless of whether it would be a good or bad day emotionally.
Ultimately the meaning underneath his statement is far more simple and yet difficult than a list of what to say. He was giving me unconditional love.
This love isn’t dependent on the state of my mental health. It doesn’t matter whether I am happy or not. It doesn’t matter that sometimes I’m irritable, uncommunicative, and incoherent. He loves me because I’m me. Since he sees me before he sees depression, I am able to not allow depression to dominate who I am.
A depressed person can argue about whether the future is hopeful or whether you really love them. But they can’t disagree with love in action, shown by wanting to hang out with them. It makes me cry with gratitude that I have not one, but several friends in my life who love me like that.
So next time you don’t know what to say to your depressed friend? Don’t ignore the issue out of fear. Instead, try this: “I’m sorry you’re going through this, but I still want to be your friend and spend time with you no matter whether you’re having a good day or a bad day.”