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Monthly Archives: October 2015

5 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Person

Depression is not a choice

Despite the attempts to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce stigma, people still say hurtful things to people who are depressed. Not because they are mean or uncaring. I think it’s actually because we are not taught more compassionate ways to respond to pain, so we say whatever we think will get the person to stop hurting. Because it hurts to be in the presence of someone who is hurting.

Here are some of the worst offenders:

  1. I don’t believe in depression. I’m not even sure what this means. It’s one thing to say that you don’t believe in ghosts, or God, or the theory of evolution. But how can you say you don’t believe in an illness? No one says I don’t believe in heart disease. That’s not chest pain. Just go take some Rolaids and stop your whining.
  2. Suck it up. Because we value stoicism, we think anyone who copes with their pain by pushing through is strong, and anyone who acknowledges their depression is weak. Maybe even wallowing in their pain. So just get out of bed and go to work. No one wants to hear about how you’re feeling.
  3. Think of all the less fortunate. There are people who don’t have the basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. People who live in war-torn countries. And here you are being all negative just because you don’t feel good. You have nothing to complain about.
  4. Be thankful. This one is similar to #3. In this case, rather than comparing yourself to others, you are encouraged to count your blessings so that you can see that you actually have no reason to be depressed. You just have a bad attitude.
  5. You just want to be depressed. I actually had a boyfriend tell me this when I was in college. Because it was so much fun being in my room, unable to go to class or get dressed or answer the phone and to think about suicide all the time. I was having a ball. I hope I broke up with him after he said that.

Hearing these statements from the people we turn to for support can be even more hurtful than the symptoms of depression themselves. Because we already think that we’re lazy, weak, and pathetic. We already beat ourselves up for having no good reason to be depressed. We already feel like failures.

But if you’ve said some of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself. This is how we’ve been taught to respond to pain, so it’s not your fault. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

One of the things I do in therapy is to teach clients how to practice self-compassion, which in turns teaches them to have compassion for other people’s pain. It’s a surprisingly unnatural thing to do, trying to come up with loving statements to say to ourselves. Which is weird, because you’d think this is what we’d want to hear.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. The only proof I need that I am in pain is that I’m hurting. You don’t have to earn the right do be depressed by having a traumatic childhood or some recent loss. The pain itself is all the evidence you need that you are depressed.
  2. I will be with my own pain for as long as it lasts. Because this is what we do for people who we care about. We sit with them while they are hurting.
  3. My pain counts, too. In the self-compassion retreat I attended, I learned that I can focus on giving myself compassion for as long as I need to before sending it to someone else. I can focus on my pain first.
  4. I can be thankful but still be in pain. Practicing gratitude is helpful, but it is not some magical solution that will make our pain go away. Thankful people with good lives still get depressed.
  5. What can I do to alleviate some of your suffering? Would it help to eat some breakfast? Turn on some music? Call a friend? These are much better alternatives than screaming at yourself for not being able to get out of bed.

Compassion takes practice, just like anything else. So be gentle with yourself as you try to come up with compassionate statements for yourself and for others.

Angels and Demons, Part 2

spoonflower.com

spoonflower.com

I remember once when my parents invited this visiting priest to our house for lunch, my mom was relating this incident in which she didn’t have an alarm clock and prayed to God to wake her up at 6 am. And he did.

At the time I thought that was ridiculous. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God. I just figured he was too busy to care about things as mundane as whether or not my mom woke up at 6 am.

But then, as I mentioned in a previous post, I read this near-death experience book called My Descent Into Death. He spent an entire chapter talking about angels. I had never really given much thought about the role of angels. I wasn’t even sure I had a guardian angel. But after reading his book, I thought about angels a lot more.

Now I can feel their presence. Every day.

One day last week I spilled my coffee just as I was about to head out the door to leave for work, as I sometimes do. And I was pissed off about it, as I usually am. But as I was cleaning up, I said a prayer. God, if somehow spilling my coffee is supposed to protect me from something, then thank you.

Which was bizarre. I had never thanked God for spilling my coffee in my life and had no idea how that could be helpful in any way.

A few minutes later, as I was driving to work, a car pulled out in front of me and was driving on the wrong side of the road, heading straight towards me. I was aware that there was a car to the right of me so it was a little tricky to get out of the way.

Had I not spilled my coffee, I probably would have been drinking it at that moment. Or I would have at least been holding the mug. And even if I had successfully been able to swerve out of the way with one hand on the steering wheel, I probably would have spilled coffee all over myself.

And it was only as an afterthought that I remembered the prayer I had said earlier.

On the flip side, I am also more aware of demons. I used to be the kind of person who never wanted to see the bad in people. I thought I was being judgmental if someone made me anxious and would ignore the warning signs that I should stay away. But after reading The Gift of Fear, I trust my gut feeling that someone isn’t safe.

I am also more aware of my inner demons and how insidious they are, because they sound like me. They have my voice. They are not ostensibly telling me to do anything wrong. They are just saying things like, nobody cares about you. You’re not important. Which seems plausible.

Even when I’m feeling good about myself, it only takes the smallest opening for these thoughts to creep in. A poor night’s sleep. The slightest rejection. Extended periods of isolation.

It seems like it should be obvious which voice is the angel and which is the devil, but sometimes it isn’t. Because most of the time, it’s not a debate between big moral issues of right or wrong. They are small choices that potentially lead you to harm or turn you against yourself.

Things like, you’ve proven you can stay sober. Go ahead and have a drink. One drink won’t kill you.

Or, nobody wants to hear about your problems. Don’t bother calling anyone. You’re just setting yourself up for rejection.

For some reason, my demons are easier to believe. But lately I’ve been trying this experiment where I try to believe the loving voice. The one that tells me that people care about me and that I can have faith in myself. It’s hard to have faith in that voice, because what if it’s wrong? What if I am just setting myself up for disappointment?

So far that hasn’t happened. And it’s a much more peaceful way to live, listening to my angel.

Trauma and Resilience

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So I’m at this conference on mindfulness, trauma, and addiction right now. For some reason, I seem to be drawn to these topics. Just like for some reason, I seem to be drawn to guys who’ve been traumatized. And to therapy, in general.

Actually, I think I know why. It occurred to me earlier this year that my interest in trauma may be more than just intellectual curiosity. I am always “jokingly” saying that I was traumatized by my some of my past relationships. I have mini-flashbacks. I shut down when people yell at me. I have an exaggerated startle response.

And I had anxiety attacks during the presentations on trauma at this conference. Yesterday afternoon I had to take an Ativan because I felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t go back to the conference today; two days of listening to examples of my relationship history were all I could tolerate.

Still, like my clients, I look back at the events of my life and think, was it really that bad? There are lots of people who had it worse than me. But the more I learn, the more I realize that everyone has experienced some trauma.

In my case, having a parent with a mental illness was traumatic. Having a spouse with a mental illness was traumatic. And coping with my own mental illness while I tried to help the people I loved with theirs was also traumatic.

I was reminded during this conference that many therapists have experienced trauma. Helping others is a way to have a sense of mastery over our past. That’s why it seems depressing to most people to spend all day listening to other people’s problems, but it isn’t to us.

You would think that realizing that I have been traumatized would make me feel bad about myself, but the opposite is true. Instead of thinking that I’m weak and pathetic because I get overwhelmed easily and shut down and can’t function, now I think, look how awesome I have coped with everything! I kick ass!

In fact, resilience, post-traumatic growth, and grit are the new darlings of positive psychology. Some people thrive in the face of traumatic events. Sometimes they even find a way to turn it into something good–usually by trying to help other people.

For example, the student organization that I supervise, Active Minds, was founded by Alison Malmon, whose brother committed suicide while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He had not told anyone that he was suffering from schizoaffective disorder, including his family. Alison recognized that many students probably lived in secrecy like her brother did, so she created Active Minds, whose goal is to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness on college campuses.

Let me make clear that I am not in any way saying that everyone should be able to overcome traumatic experiences if they try hard enough. Some of it is luck. I have many resources that other people do not, for which I am thankful, but I didn’t do anything to earn them.

Still, for me, finally acknowledging that I have lived through traumatic experiences doesn’t make me feel broken. It actually makes me appreciate how strong I am.