Depression – why opening the curtains can cause more suffering – and other advice

Thanks to fellow blogger, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, for this spot-on depression post.

Picture this. You’re trapped beneath a safety-blanket of duvets and pillows. The room is dark and silent. All you hear is your breathing; and sometimes you’re not quite sure if you’re really alive. It feels like you’re wrapped in a big, dark spider web; you know something bad is coming, but you don’t even want to struggle or escape. Days and nights pass in a blur of half-sleep and daydreams. Time ceases to mean anything. You can’t remember when you last brushed your teeth; and it doesn’t matter. There’s no reason to.

Suddenly, somebody comes stomping in, full of cheeriness and attempts to gee you up. They flounce over to the curtains and fling them open, pulling the nice, safe duvet from you and exposing you to the harsh, painful light. Your eyes sting. You haven’t seen real daylight in a while. You feel cold and naked; the act of stripping away a blanket is, to you, a cruel and unusual punishment. The whole world can see you now, and you’re scared.  Tired, anxious, weary and scared. You just want to be left alone.

This is why pointing out lovely weather is annoying and pointless.

Depression is a cruel illness. It strips you of your ability to care or relate to anything around you. It fills your mind with emptiness – a saying I never understood until I experienced chronic depression myself – and it’s all you can do to blink without giving up.

 

My mother has a habit of trying to force me outside, into the garden. When she thinks I’ve spent long enough hiding in my bedroom, she’ll waltz in (usually while I’m asleep), throw the curtains wide with as much clattering and muttering as possible, and proclaim that, “you’d feel much better if you got some sunshine!”.

I don’t doubt that weather has a huge impact on depression. I certainly feel much less able to cope in the winter; making excuses about the weather being too bad to leave the house or see friends. However, depression is a very complex illness, and you wouldn’t expect a bit of sun to magically fix a broken arm. It won’t cure depression either.

There is one aspect of depression I have never been able to manipulate or control via medication; the urge to shut myself away from the world. Friendships have fallen by the wayside because there’s only so  many times you can refuse an invitation before they stop asking. Being shut away is a natural response to being depressed; withdrawing from everything and everyone can sometimes feel like the only way to save yourself. Retreat to a place you feel comfortable and secure.

As well-meaning as it may be to try to force a depressive out of their comfort zone in an attempt to cure them, what you’re really doing is tearing the safety blanket away from a very vulnerable person. You may call it tough love, but to the person you’re trying to help, you’re being cruel and unreasonable. They already feel low enough without feeling their loved ones are turning against them as well.

 

Depression lies. When a friend offers you advice on ways to cope, sometimes the depressed brain will twist the words to sound like an accusation; particularly in cases of borderline personality disorder. I’ve been told that bipolar can feel the same. This imagined accusation sticks with the depressed person and, over time, morphs into a huge monster they can’t possibly hope to tackle.

Going outside has long been a big problem of mine. In the past four years (give or take a year) I’ve gone from somebody who goes on regular long walks and trips to town, to an almost-recluse, travelling by taxi so I don’t have to deal with the public and wearing nondescript clothes so as not to draw attention to myself. Part of  that is due to living with chronic pain, but I know depression is at the root of my reluctance to be seen in public.

You see, I worry that everybody knows my secret. That they can somehow tell from my face I’m “one of those crazy people”. I’ve sat in taxis, listening to the driver crack jokes about our local psychiatric unit, and prayed he wouldn’t look me in the eye and realise I’m totally incapable of existing without daily medication.

 

I accept that trying to help somebody with depression is like fighting a losing battle. The nature of depression is that it convinces the sufferer that getting well isn’t an option. The concept of recovery doesn’t even exist; depression hides it from you.

This is why sometimes the sufferer lashes out either verbally or physically when you try to help them. It’s why they may turn their back on you and not contact you for six months when you give out a few well-meaning hints. It’s not that they don’t appreciate the advice or care about you; it’s that they’re unable to feel those emotions properly. Depression has dampened everything down, placing the depressive in a near-soundproof room. They may be able to hear you, but their lack of reaction isn’t because they’re being spiteful and ignoring you; it’s due to depression smothering them with apathy.

It’s natural to want to help those who are suffering, and mental illnesses are no different. However, unless you’re a doctor you wouldn’t try to remove a tumour; in the same sense, unless you really know what you’re talking about, offering advice to somebody entrenched in misery probably won’t work.

I’m not saying to abandon those who have depression. Far from it; there are other ways to help than mentioning medications and therapies you’ve heard about.

 

So, how do you help someone with depression? I don’t have the answers to that. Everyone is different, and depression is a wide-ranging illness often encompassing other diagnoses such as psychosis, paranoia, anxiety disorder, BPD, PTSD and bipolar. What works for one person might not work for another. However, along with not  wantonly opening curtains, there are some things which might help.

  • The urge to drag a depressive out of bed is probably huge. However, it’s rarely the answer. When somebody retreats it’s through a need to be alone;  whether rational or not. In the depths of a depressive episode, you shrink into yourself and ignore phone calls. Emails go unanswered. Often, the sheer stress of having to communicate wears the sufferer down so much that they retreat entirely. Obviously if you’re concerned for their safety this advice doesn’t apply; but as long as they’re not hurting themselves… sometimes they just need to get through it on their own. Keep an eye on them; don’t let them be entirely alone, but don’t pressure them either. It can be a long process to climb out of the hole.
  • It’s hard to help someone when they throw accusations in your face. Paranoia often tags along with depression, and it’s very easy to become convinced that those trying to help you are actually out to damage you somehow. My personal experience of it is that it’s almost a form of psychosis; suddenly everything and everyone are against you, and even the people who claim to love you seem to be trying to ruin everything. It’s not something you can just get control over. It’s easy to imagine enemies everywhere when you feel entirely stripped bare.
  • I shouldn’t have to say this, but having depression doesn’t make you stupid or lazy. Sadly, these views still exist. Telling somebody to “just get out of bed and join the real world” isn’t the answer; it just serves to  make the sufferer feel even less of a person than they already do. Ask someone experiencing a depressive episode if they feel like a valuable member of society; they don’t. They’re at the lowest point it’s possible to reach, and suggesting in a roundabout  way that they’re taking up space and being lazy isn’t what we need to hear.
  • On a similar note, saying “my auntie was depressed for a week and she did more exercise and it went away” doesn’t help. It’s condescending and patronising. We know our illness; we live with it every day.
  • Telling somebody on anti-depressants that you don’t believe they’re safe or work properly will get you nowhere. Those with depression need support every step of the way, not putting down for their choices. Often, deciding to take medication is the last straw of a very painful life. It can be incredibly difficult to get up enough courage to go to the doctor and explain your failings so you can be given happy pills. If they work for somebody, what’s the problem?
  • You don’t know how they feel. Even if you have depression yourself, you can’t see or feel their exact emotions; or lack of. When  you’re trapped in the depression bubble, nobody has ever felt as wretched as you do. That feeling isn’t from an excess of ego; you really do feel like nobody could ever withstand the pain and emptiness. Tell them if you empathise or relate – communicating with other sufferers can help enormously – but don’t try to convince them you know how terrible everything is.
  • Invite your depressed friends and family to parties, but don’t be surprised or disappointed if they decline. It’s not because they don’t want to see you; it’s because they don’t want to see anybody. Telling them they’d “feel better if they had a few drinks” may be well-meant, but it won’t help. They won’t feel better. They’re sick, and sickness can’t be cured by a bit of fun. Let them know you’d like them to be there but that there’s no pressure. Pressure to socialise is a very painful part of depression.
  • Don’t tell them they look tired. Seriously. Nobody needs to hear that.

(Thank you, fellow blogger. Great post)

 

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6 thoughts on “Depression – why opening the curtains can cause more suffering – and other advice

  1. What an amazing post, so clearly defines what depression does to us and how most people react to the sufferer. I too have had my protective blanket yanked from me and felt accused and more guilty than before for not wanting or not being able to enjoy the lovely day outside. I’m trying to understand what my husband has been through, loving me so many years as I dip into depression and dig out again.

  2. When I’m tired or feeling a bit down, I open my blinds a bit. To me, letting some of the bright sun is really livens me up…makes me feel a lot better.

  3. I love this post! I struggle with depression and I just found out not too long ago that I was even depressed. I couldn’t understand how come I was always extremely angry, sad, or indifferent. I never seemed to be happy though. This post is being bookmarked by me and I am going to share it with my family to see if they can kind of understand my situation.

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