At our 10 year high school anniversary, my wife and I bumped into one half of our school’s signature couple. This couple dated all four years, were home-coming queen and prom king, everyone loved them, ended up getting married… very classic stuff. We said hey to her and asked the obligatory “where’s your husband?” question figuring he was parking the car or in the bathroom. We knew her well so she quickly opened up to us. Fighting back tears she said they had a big fight trying to get him to come but that he just couldn’t do it because he’s really been struggling lately with depression.
That was all I needed to hear. I honestly felt like in that moment I’d been transported to their house and seen the whole battle unfold. I’ve been in so many similar arguments that I’m well aware of the emotions involved… the depressed person making honest plans that they hope they’ll be able to keep, trying to muster up the strength to carry them out when the time comes, but again having to back out at the last minute to everyone’s disappointment. On the car ride home my wife was empathizing with her. “I know how hard it is to go somewhere alone and have to spend the whole time explaining why your husband isn’t there,” she said. I found myself empathizing with him.
It seems that the motivation for depressed people can often be misunderstood, so I wanted to write this blog post to help shed some light on why we do some of the things we do. Now the wife (trying to avoid names) at the reunion did have the more difficult job to do. Helping depressed people is such a trying endeavor because they let you down so often, can be hostile towards your help, basically never thank you, and the list goes on. I’m working on an article to sing the praises of support persons because you absolutely deserve it. However, I do want to fight the notion that it’s simply cold-heartedness or cowardice that kept the husband home that night by looking at three classic behaviors of depressed people and why they’re not always selfishly motivated.
1) Constantly Resting This one is almost not even our choice. Our body is making it for us. Depression brings a level of exhaustion that you might not even understand if you’ve never experienced it. We do feel terrible that we can’t do daily tasks we know we should be doing. We’re often just worried that something much worse is going to happen if we don’t focus on resting. We don’t want to lose our job if we haven’t already, damage our children, or have a complete mental breakdown. We know that these things will hurt our loved ones to such a degree that could be too much to bear, so we divert all of our extremely limited energies to avoiding that thing we’re most afraid of. Every other moment must be spent resting because we are so far in the red and have no storehouse of energy to draw from.
2) Not Socializing Before my wife told me she was pregnant with our third daughter, she took me to Chili’s and ordered us drinks and my favorite appetizer, chips and queso. When she could tell I was starting to relax and get into a good mood she said, “Ok I have to tell you something, and I need you to choose your first words wisely.” This was due to a less than stellar reaction I had to the news that she was pregnant with our second daughter, and a “who’s the father?” joke I made upon hearing she was pregnant with our first daughter. She didn’t laugh. Anyways, she was sensitive and knew that any reaction on my part besides pure joy would potentially strike a nerve. I’m sure you have your own areas of sensitivity as well.
For depressed people, we’re in such a low state that it seems our bodies become hyper sensitive to any negative experience. Maybe this is because our bodies know we just can’t handle any additional damage, but whatever the reason our hyper sensitivity and proneness to overanalyzing do not mix well with social situations. It’s part feeling naked, like everyone in the room can tell how messed up you are even if in reality they just think you’re quiet, and part feeling worse when you’re reminded how far from normal your feeling. It’s so difficult to be in a social situation and not be able to really take part in it. We don’t want to keep experiencing that pain. We genuinely want to stop being depressed so that we can stop pulling so much from our loved ones and this social situation has a high probability of sending us spiraling backwards which postpones the day we can once again stop being a burden.
3) Being Closed Off There are a lot of reasons for this, but the unselfish one is that we don’t want to ruin everyone else’s day too. People are talking, being happy, and just living life, then they turn and ask us a question and the honest answer is just too dark for the situation. We’ve been real before and it’s been so difficult to steal the heart of Tafiti from the room and see all the green things in front of us turn black because of our words. Sometimes we’re genuinely trying to keep others from having to take part in our sadness.
For me, during my main struggle with depression and during any shorter relapses that I’ve had, a main goal has been to avoid taking steps backwards. I know that my family needs me to come out of this. If in the short term I have to do something that seems selfish, I will if the opposite choice carries to much risk of regression. It might look like I’m only being concerned with myself, I’m really trying to play the long game. I may not be able to take my kids to the birthday party this Saturday because I’m trying to get better so that I can take them to the hundreds of other birthday parties they’ll be invited to.