Shawn Henfling describes the isolation of depression and what you can do to help the people you love.
In a previous article, ( https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/living-depression-one-mans-struggle-overcome-brpe/ ), I shared my experience of how it felt to sink into depression and my eventual struggle to climb back out. In that piece, I left quite a bit unsaid. Some things I’ll still not share, just as everyone has their skeletons, I too have mine. The thing is, they don’t matter. The only thing that does is finding a way out, breaking free of the chase and truly seeing what freedom from the destroyer can be. I’m not in the clear, it’s only been a few months since I went on the medication. I will not be deluded into thinking life is suddenly hunky dory. Depression is a lifelong struggle, and one that is all too easy to lose.
Sufferers like me hide it quite deftly. One of the most exhausting parts of enduring, is the face we must put on every morning and struggle to maintain throughout the day. We don’t broadcast our feelings or ask for help. We tend to suffer in silence, unable or unwilling to share what is going on in our heads for fear of being judged or adding to the already heavy burden our friends and families bear. On the bad days, I’d reflect on how well I was really doing and how much harder it was for some of my friends. To a normal person, that might be a wake up call, but to me it was a reason to sink deeper into despair. Why on Earth couldn’t I just be happy for myself? Isolating myself was a defense mechanism against the vulnerability of opening up.
There were people I connected with, but I was careful to compartmentalize them all, both friends and family. Some knew a little, but nobody knew the whole story. That’s the key to keeping it hidden. Nobody can truly know what’s going on inside your head. Giving bits and pieces of what is happening with you will keep people from hounding you too much, from pressing too hard for information. I had different reasons for not telling different people. I didn’t want them to worry. They had enough going on in their lives already. I feared them losing confidence in me. I feared appearing weak or “unmanly”. Giving people just enough information was like handing them a flashlight in a dark room. It made them feel better, but the room was still too dark to see clearly. These were conscious decisions, because as I’ve said before, the problems were mine to suffer through.
I’ve read about people who, following the suicide of a friend or family member, will have cases of survivors guilt. “I should have known.” “I just missed the signs.” I’m sorry to say, it just doesn’t work that way. We hide the pain and despair to save those we love from seeing it. We struggle on for everyone else, in an effort to keep from letting them down, until the weight of it all breaks us. I knew I was making it difficult for my friends and family. I knew they’d do anything they could to help, but in my mind, asking was selfish. Burdening anyone else with my petty problems was the kind of thing I simply could not do. Sure, a few times I reached out, but immediately felt guilty. The last thing I needed when I felt that badly about myself was to feel worse, so I clammed up. Keeping quiet was just easier than trying to explain how I felt followed by sinking lower.
No matter how wrapped up I was in my own struggles, I always tried to find a way to help people. I don’t understand the dichotomy of it, but assisting others lessened the pain a little. It meant I mattered, that I’d done something worthwhile with my miserable existence. It never occurred to me that the feeling might go both ways, and that asking for help might make someone’s day. In my broken mind, I couldn’t grasp that concept. What was good for others still wasn’t good for me.
Part of my problem was that I felt unimportant. I know now that it hurt her, but I used to tell my wife that I felt like no more than the handyman. When things broke, that was the only time people needed me. She’d ask me how I was doing, and that was often my reply. Not only was I avoiding telling her how deeply I was hurting, but I lacked the ability as well. I wasn’t misleading her, I did feel like just the handyman, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. I couldn’t see that they needed me, I could only hear when someone said something had broken. To me, that was my duty, my purpose.
I have no proof for this, but I believe people who suffer from depression are able to see it in others, to sniff it out. I can’t say that we found each other because of the depression, but I think it had something to do with it. I have a group of friends who, like me, suffer from depression. We don’t talk often, but there is typically a reason when we do. We notice small changes, and Facebook has helped. When the tone of peoples statuses change, I check in. If they’ve been unusually silent for a while, I check in. I learned that even though we may not want to talk about it, its comforting to know someone cares enough to listen. Furthermore, it is much easier to open up to someone experiencing the same thing than a person, no matter how close they may be to you, who has no experience from which to draw upon.
That is the lesson to take, at least from me.
Pay attention. Just because you aren’t close friends doesn’t mean you won’t notice a small, nearly insignificant change in behavior. Sometimes, because you aren’t around them every day, it’ll stand out more to you than their closest friends and family.
Reach out. Chances are, you’ll be rebuffed most times you check in. Heaven knows I was loathe to talk about anything, and I was great at changing the subject of conversation. Nevertheless, it made a difference knowing people did care.
Keep at it. I don’t mean over and over again, but every time you notice a problem or change, check in again. Eventually, the burden becomes too much for all of us to bear, and we need an outlet.
LISTEN. Don’t talk, don’t offer advice. Just listen and ask questions, but be polite. If you press too much, we’ll shut down.
Don’t judge. We know we aren’t normal, there is no reason to point a finger at us and verbalize it.
My depression may never go away, but I can keep the symptoms at bay for now. I’ll take my medicine, and hope that someday I can be weaned off them. I know the dangers, and I’m aware of how many people like me choose to end their own lives. What scares me most is the potential of not realizing how far I may be sinking before it becomes too late to reverse course. We cannot always be trusted to speak up, even after coming to an epiphany about needing help. That’s just the way depression works. In a room full of loving, supportive people, we can still be alone and isolated. The question then becomes, who will find a way to reach out and breach the darkness? Even when the cloud proves too dense to penetrate, the effort itself can be our lighthouse, guiding us through the storm. Never be afraid to let someone know you care. It may mean the difference between life and death, just don’t feel too guilty if it doesn’t help. The battle is won and lost in our own heads, and all the love and support in the world may not be enough for us to wake up.
Photo: Ryan Melaugh