Being depressed and anxious sucks, but for many people, it can be even harder to watch someone you deeply care about struggle.
For me, when I see someone hurting, I feel a strong urge to Do Something. Perhaps it’s ironic considering how often I second guess myself when it has to do with my own life, that I usually think I can make a positive difference in someone else’s.
As someone who has struggled with depression in the past (and still suffers from anxiety on a daily basis), there’s something that happens to you sometimes, that I don’t know if people would understand if they haven’t been there themselves. When you’re feeling really bad and hopeless, sometimes there is a point where you just want to bring the whole house down, when you’re so mired in self-hate and self-pity that you figure, might as well just blow it all up. I think for the worst people or perhaps the people with the least ability to control these feelings in any constructive way, this can result in mass shootings and other serious violence - the idea that "I’m so miserable, I don’t care what happens to anyone else." Or worse, "I want other people to feel as bad I do."
Personally, I’ve never gotten so miserable and messed up that I wanted to hurt strangers, but I’ve absolutely felt compelled to hurt myself. Not so much physically, but emotionally and mentally. It’s seductive in a way that seems completely illogical and inexplicable. Blow it all up, who cares, I probably deserve the absolute worst. If this is going to fall apart, might as well make the failure spectacular.
Fortunately, I rarely ever feel like this anymore, but when I see other people who seem to cling to every misfortune and meticulously rub it into every fiber of their being like toxic lotion, I have to remind myself that I once had similarly frustrating tendencies.
It’s so incredibly hard to think of what to do or say to someone when almost nothing you do or say seems to matter, especially when it’s someone that you have a very close relationship with or emotional investment in. It can be hard not to take it personal, wondering why you can't make someone happy the way you used to, wondering if they don't feel the same about you or if you're just not good enough anymore. You have to remind yourself it’s not about you.
You have to remember that sometimes it may seem like someone isn’t even trying to fight it. But it doesn’t mean there is a perfect way to try to figure out if they are, or in what ways or measure they are, because sometimes questioning them in any way, shape or form is just one more punch to the gut to them, no matter how honest your curiosity or desire to help is or how carefully you try to frame it.
Sometimes you’re going to feel utterly helpless and not even physical contact is going to seem to do much for someone. These are the moments that you have to be careful not to lose yourself in trying to save someone else. Sometimes they just need time and space. Sometimes it’s a battle that they’ll be fighting forever, and you have to learn how to just be okay with the inevitable struggle that you’ll always be a witness to, because the truth is, they probably need you even if it seems like you aren’t helping.
There’s so much talk about the importance of communication, and the interesting thing is that in “normal, healthy” relationships it’s fine and good to expect people to put effort into sincere and careful communication. But if someone has any kind of mental illness or issues whatsoever, no matter how low level or common, the rules change. It’s understandable in situations like these to want even MORE information than we typically get, so we know how to help, or how to adjust, or just to understand what someone is feeling and what they need, but often people with mental issues are especially bad at communicating the things that we so desperately want to know.
They may say very little or nothing, they may give false information, they may perceive everything in the most negative way possible. They may feel they are protecting themselves by shutting people out, regardless of what kind of relationship they have with them. Sometimes this decision isn't really even logic based, it's a gut feeling, and when you're in a bad mindframe, making bad decisions is much easier.
The negative voices in your head lie to you, and it can be hard to block them out because they use part of a truth to support the lie. They'll remind you of a bad decision you made once that was traumatic and convince you that you did it many other times, or that you're bound to do it again, and they recontextualize other bad things that happened to you as being a result of that in some way. They will scare you into being afraid to do anything that might have a chance of backfiring or disappointing you, no matter how unlikely. It's like being bullied by your own mind.
Learning how, and when, to interact with people who struggle with mental issues is a complex and demanding lesson. I’ve dealt with it many times over decades and I’m still wrestling with it, even with all my experience.
That’s why I think it’s important to recognize that while the onus may mostly be on the person who isn't struggling, or is struggling less (because let’s face it, most people have SOME kind of mental issue whether they want to admit it or not), the reality is that if a person needs help and wants it, the effort still needs to be mutual. If someone’s trying as hard as they can to help and do the right thing, they need to know that it’s appreciated, that even though the struggling person might not know how to tell them all the right things to do, or that there may not even be a right thing to do, the more information that they have, the more they can try to act in a way that helps instead of hinders. Sometimes it may not obviously make someone get better, but it can still prevent them from getting even worse.
I’ve witnessed situations where someone was sincerely trying to understand something because they wanted to help and their motivations were assumed to be negative just because they failed to word their curiosity in the best way. I’ve been that guy, and it sucks when your good intentions just upset someone else, especially when you honestly aren’t sure how.
You’ve probably heard the idea that everyone you don’t know is struggling with something you don’t know about. Giving someone a little benefit of the doubt is not a terrible idea. Granted if you don’t know anything about someone you may have less motivation to give it, but better to decide someone didn’t deserve it and stop giving it than to lash out at someone who just wanted to help. Being the better person doesn't always feel better, but it's never a bad thing as long as you aren't being intentionally used.
Listening is a great and essential skill, but you can’t listen to someone who doesn’t really want to talk to you. Sometimes people just need to vent and aren’t really looking for a solution that they already know doesn’t probably exist. But there’s just no way around the fact that even though it may be harder for struggling individuals to communicate their feelings and thoughts to sympathetic parties, it’s still somewhat essential to give them at least some small amount of info to operate on, lest the attempted helper just believe that their efforts are completely wasted and decide the person will be happier without them.
There have been people in my life that I had to accept were beyond my ability to help them. There were even more people who had no interest in my help. And there were people who were totally interested in my help, but not interested in me once they didn’t need it anymore. It doesn’t change my innate desire to want to improve the lives of others, but I’ve had to learn that sometimes it’s not my battle and it’s wiser to realize it sooner rather than later.
I wrote this because I’ve been on both sides, I know how it feels to be stuck in a mental pit you can’t get out of, even if you helped dig it. I know how it feels to see someone down in that pit and realize that you can’t reach them or pull them out. Sometimes you have to try really really hard to pull yourself out of a negative thought loop and tell someone something they can do to help, even if it’s just hold you quietly or give you space altogether. And sometimes you have to just sit at the top of the pit and be patient for someone, trusting that if they see a way for you to help, they’ll let you know.
If you’re struggling and your friends care about you, tell them what you’re doing to fight it. Are you seeing a therapist? Are you on meds? Do you have a strategy? Sure, you don’t OWE anyone an explanation, but we’re talking about people who care about you. Help them help you. Show them you’re doing the best you can so you can inspire them to want to do the best THEY can.
If someone’s distant but obviously not doing well and you aren’t sure what to do, reach out and tell them you noticed, and you care, and you’re glad to help if you can, but don’t be surprised if they don’t give you the information you want the most. They probably feel like they have NO idea what to tell you, because if they knew how to fix it they would. So be patient, as patient as you possibly can be.
Even though getting a therapist is usually good advice, many people are reluctant or resistant because it's difficult for them to believe that a problem that feels so utterly monumental and unsolvable in their head could be solved by talking to a total stranger. Even more so if they've had a negative experience with therapy in the past, or know someone who told them all about theirs. Don't be surprised if suggesting a therapist is almost viewed as an insult by some people. We have to remind them that taking action to help yourself is a positive trait that shows courage rather than weakness. It's a leap of faith, but if nothing else has works, what do they really have to lose? Keep in mind that many people's financial situations always severely hamper their ability to seek help, so don't suggest therapy to someone you know is financially struggling unless you're willing to help or know how to get around it.
No matter how badly you want to help someone, you can’t help them if you’re so distraught, burnt out and frustrated that it’s negatively affecting your ability to cope and be positive. Make sure you’re giving yourself room to breathe and recharge, or else you’ll both be miserable. If the person you're trying to help can tell that their situation is negatively affecting you, it will only serve to make them feel even worse and probably be more reluctant to engage you about their problems.
In the end it really does mostly boil down to awareness, patience and communication. We all have things to overcome and other people’s issues often seem easier to solve than our own because usually the things that we struggle with we’ve been struggling with for a while, while someone else’s problems are new to us and so we have a lot of ideas about how they might be fixed (many or most of which have likely already been tried by the person we’re giving our “helpful” advice to).
John Lennon once sang “All You Need Is Love,” which although a great song and a nice thought, is unfortunately a grand oversimplification, especially when it comes to the challenge of aiding the trauma of others. The reality is more like his former bandmate George Harrison sang about 20 years later:
It’s gonna take time, a whole lot of precious time
It’s gonna take patience and time
To do it
To do it
To do it
To do it
To do it
To do it right