19 October 2011

"I'm Depressed, You're Depressed"

The question has been put to me recently: "How do I [as someone with depression] talk with someone else who is depressed?"  This may be the trickiest dynamic of all to articulate.  Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Firstly, just as with people who are not depressed, remember that you are not qualified to treat the other depressed person.  You may have unique insights into that person's thoughts and feelings by virtue of your shared misery, and there are uses for those insights that I'll explore in just a bit.  Always think of yourselves as both being out on thin ice; you have a much better understanding of their peril than does someone on the bank, but you're in just as much peril and therefore you should not attempt a rescue.
Photo from North Dakota Game & Fish Dept. "Safety on Ice"
There's always a realm of small talk; things like, "What are you taking?"  You can have a brief conversation about medications ("I took that; it didn't do anything for me," "Haven't tried that one yet"), but very quickly you're left with something I discussed in "How to Form a Support Network" - you've got to have more in common than just depression to hold an interesting conversation, much less build a meaningful relationship.
For our purposes, "meaningful relationship" doesn't mean anything romantic or long-term; rather one in which you both find a personal connection that you value, regardless of how ephemeral your contact may be.  I had very intimate conversations with other patients I suspect I'll never hear from or see again, and I consider those meaningful.  Also, since I'm thinking about it: for God's sake, don't try to hook up with someone else who is depressed!
What, then, to make of your firsthand experience with depression in the context of relating to someone else?  In my recent treatment, I found that my depression gave me the chance to know what to ask or say on an almost instinctual level.  It wasn't something that came to me for every patient; I probably only interacted with about a third of the other patients, at most.  But of that third, I feel like I was able to get them to share things that they wanted and needed to share with someone else.

One of the hardest things about getting help for depression is that you feel self-conscious about even being depressed in the first place.  In a recent post, I likened it to playing a game of Charades, where you're aching to say something but you can't bring yourself to say it, and you just keep hoping that someone around you will say the magic words that let you begin to express what you've been holding inside.  Playing Charades is much easier if you've got teammates on the same wavelength as you.
One person in five knowing what you want to say can mean a lot.
There are a lot of subtleties to discussing things with someone with depression--as I'm sure trained professionals can attest!  You can inadvertently stumble across something that the person finds overwhelming just as easily as you can unlock something they're begging to share.  Remember, you're not trying to treat the other patient.  You're simply relating to them, given them the chance to share with someone else who understands how precarious the ice under them is, or has been.

A conversation, of course, goes both ways and you should feel comfortable sharing your own thoughts, feelings and experiences with the other patient.  It's okay if you don't; again, simply sharing a diagnosis is a flimsy basis for baring your soul to a perfect stranger.  In the course of my treatment, however, it was pretty easy to spot kindred spirits, and I found that it was almost effortless opening up to them.

What, however, if you find the other person simply uninteresting?  This can be awkward because now not only are you stuck in the unenviable position of trying to find a polite exit to a conversation, but you're trying to do it in a way that doesn't tip someone whose emotional state is already fragile.  I don't have any magic words or phrases to suggest, but I saw one patient who simply engaged someone else in conversation.  I thought he had attention deficit problems, but after a while I became suspicious that he just got bored of people.  I can't prove it, of course, but it seemed to work for him.

I hope some of this helps.  If you have any further questions, or requests for future blog posts, be sure to put them to me!  I may not come up with the content you want, but I'll do my best.  And, of course, I invite you to share with others anything you think may benefit them.  My blog is not monetized, so I don't profit from page views or shares; I just want to be helpful to others.