On Being a Friend: Seeing Someone with Depression — and Seeing Myself

I am a friend. Therefore, these words are my own stories, opinions, impressions, and thoughts on having a friend with depression in this moment. They are not concrete or bible or forever — they are my truth right now. I am a friend. I think a damn good one.

That is all, but sometimes it is a lot.

As I think back, depression was always a part of our relationship. But at 18, 21, 24 we didn’t call it that. We didn’t know it was that. It was “caving” or “winter blues” or just, “I need a break”.  And as fast as our friendship began and as strong as it was, it ended — a couple of times over again.

When we reconnected again as full-fledged adults, the “D” word was introduced. It was discussed, visible and fierce.  There was no denying it and the impact it had on his relationships, his career — his life overall. It lived in him and therefore, it lived in our close friendship.

Let me preface by saying that I screwed up dozens, if not hundreds, of times. At first, I was unaware of the magnitude of this condition and the effect it has on relationships. There was a learning curve that smashed me in the face numerous times. But somewhere along the way I decided I was not going to let mental illness define or destroy this friendship.

I began to change my mindset and my ideas. I think of a yoga meditation, “Devote yourself to seeing, not being seen.” In hindsight that’s what I tried to do — see, really SEE what was going on for him. And now I realize that I have learned to see myself as well.

My approach and strategy for dealing with his depression took on various forms and there was definitely a progression and evolution over time. I decided to learn more about how those on the outside and from afar (mind you, I live hundreds of miles away) can help.  

My initial thought is that talking about it is, and was, paramount. I remember countless text and phone conversations that were icky, but oh so real, about how being depressed really feels in the moment. He talks about it, and therefore, it gives me permission to talk about it too. Even when he can’t name it because he is too far in it, over time he has given me the language and the power to do it for him. 

With that came the hard part: I challenged myself with listening. I listen to understand, empathize, problem-solve, validate and encourage. In that moment, I am there. And after, I am thinking, processing, and replaying it all over again, so I can be more cognizant of it next time.

Often I stop and ask myself: is this my real friend or is this the depressed version of my friend? I almost equate it to someone who drinks — while there’s certainly some truth in the words of a drunk, the tone and delivery are inevitably damaged and therefore, damaging. This was by no means easy to work through, especially at the beginning of the process. It doesn’t mean I ignore it and can move on instantly, but it has become a check that I issue after I am done processing the yuckiness.  

Also, I educate myself, and I allow him (when not all in it) to educate me too. I read articles (metaphors comparing depression to regular things in life, like snowstorms, make the most sense to me), I watch videos (the Black Dog series was one of our favorites), I peruse blogs and follow mental health organizations. But most importantly, after I read/listen/watch/learn, I share it with him and ask, “So what do you think about this?” so I can gauge if it resonates with him as well. This learning is new and scary and so very personal in that it affects someone I’m close to.  But that is why it is so important for me to do.  

Lastly, I’ve learned to give space. Often he will say to me, “I’m sorry, but this is not about you,” and while it may feel like a rejection, it’s the truth. There are times when he needs to shut me down, and although I can get upset, I understand that talking is not always the best option. We can come back to it another time — or not, and that’s ok too.

I am not a perfect friend. And I will never truly understand what someone with depression deals with on a regular basis. But I’ve found from personal experience that by doing some of the strategies above to SEE what’s in front of me, we can work together to tackle this Black Dog one bark at a time.

*NOTE: I have had my friend’s permission, blessing and assistance with this piece from the beginning. He is fully aware I have written it and has read it in its entirety.  

On Being a Friend: Seeing Someone with Depression — and Seeing Myself