Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
My best friend is depressed. He’s in a really tough cycle right now and struggling hard. I struggle enough with this myself to understand how hard it is to communicate in this state and be a good friend to someone. So, usually I chalk it up to the fact that he needs me to take a step back, check in on him a couple times a week and try to be positive and supportive without being too pushy.
I’ll still vent to him about my life, but it seems he’s incapable of being supportive of me at the time and I’m starting to become upset about it. This particular episode has lasted months and I’m tired of texting him things, knowing I’m not going to get a response until he feels better, or calling him when I need him, knowing he’s going to either ignore my call or pick it up sounding like Eeyore.
At this point I’m not sure what to do. I want to confront him about needing him back as my friend, but I don’t want to be selfish because I understand what he’s going through and how hard it is to do anything when you’re depressed.
A lonely friend
Dear Lonely Friend,
The dynamics of depression are isolating and painful. It’s so difficult to watch someone you care about shrink away and isolate themselves, not fully understanding what’s happening. But you do know what’s happening. You know what a magnetar pit trap depression can be, and watching your friend struggle is bringing up a lot and I’m glad you’re reaching out, for your and your friend’s sake. I want to preface this advice with an acknowledgement that I am not a mental health counselor. I do not treat depression in a diagnostic way. I do, however, work with individuals to be mutually supportive during many struggles, including depression, so I feel qualified to help in this capacity.
Your empathy is likely serving you up a smorgasbord of emotions, and few if any are pleasant. There’s probably some worry or fear in there, since you recognize the persistence of this episode, and likely some sadness for how deep into it your friend is, but then there’s also some anger and frustration at what has become a very one-sided relationship.
Communicating care and concern is difficult if it comes out as, “Dude, you’re not the only person who has ever been depressed,” so I will highly suggest not confronting him (or any depressed person) in that fashion. The voice of depression sings to people that they are shameful and not-enough, and you don’t want to add to that chorus. That being said, mental illness is a shared problem—it’s not just his, but maintaining him is not all on you. Let me tease that out a bit:
Depression can bring out some really negative personality traits that make it super not-fun for someone suffering from it to be around. Some depressive people sleep day in and day out, while others get real irritable. Some have a barrage of ever-negative thoughts, while others find a profound sense of ennui, with the entire world one great big stale saltine. Depression is not exactly a blasty-blast for anyone, depressive or otherwise. It’s not fun to watch someone sink into a pile of Jim’s SteakOut wrappers while they snap at you and then fall asleep to the title screen of a DVD. This can become a real ouroboros of a problem, wherein depressive symptoms are read by friends as them “being kind of a dick” so the friends don’t want to hang out, affirming the negative belief to the depressive person that it’s better if they remain alone.
Conversely, some people try to “suck it up” and play happy for everyone else’s benefit while they secretly suffer. These people may appear to be higher functioning, but in reality, they become more and more of an emotional island, which is just as dangerous as other presentations of depression. These people often have difficulty in asking for help, having their troubles minimized because they play the part of high functioning depressive so very well. This façade often becomes exhausting, sometimes to the point of danger.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if your friend is seeking treatment for this. There are lots of doctors, mental health counselors, and therapists that could potentially help them. If not, are they open to seeking treatment? Seeking help can be incredibly difficult, but knowing that someone supports them in finding it could assist them in making that call.
In communicating with your friend, it’s going to be paramount to not add shame and stigma to the situation. You can do your best to approach this with acknowledgement and then a bid to create a plan of action. Something like, “Hey, I care about you and I know that you’re struggling hard, but you can’t contain all of this pain and I’m feeling it, too. This is not a healthy sharing, and we need to figure out how to be mutually supportive.” If they can arrive at this point, you can start to create a plan. Ask him how he would know things were getting worse and if you should be worrying. Not to be an alarmist, but night falls fast with depression, and things can go from not-fun to suicidal quickly. Ask to create a safety plan in case it deepens.
You may have to dial back your expectations with this friend for a while, but know that it’s probably not forever. They might not be able to help you with your life troubles at the moment, but they might be open to getting coffee or hanging out and playing video games once in a while. While they are slogging through the swamp of depression, they’ll need you to make the emotional chicken noodle soup for when they can return home. When the clouds do lift, it will be important to prepare together for the next one, so you can stay connected and supportive of one another.
In the meantime, work to care for yourself. Develop that self-care plan and stick to it like it’s an appointment. It’s not a cure-all, but it can help you remain strong and grounded. Being centered will allow you to feel better in all capacities, and enable you to be a supportive friend. Your friend is lucky to have someone as empathetic and caring as you. While they may not be able to say “thank you” right now, I hope you can find some solace in this recognition.
If you or a friend are struggling with dark thoughts, please call Crisis Services at 716 834 3131.