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

5 Times to Embrace the Power of Negative Thinking

9 Ways to Let Go of Stuck ThoughtsYes, REALLY.

My whole life I have been told to embrace the power of positive thinking. This was something a lot of adults said to me, a negative, nervous little girl, riddled with anxiety.

Well, that and “stop worrying or you’ll give yourself an ulcer.”

Thanks, Mrs. Nicholson! Ulcers don’t work that way! Anxiety is more than something other than an annoyance for you to deal with from 9 to 3! Fourth grade was a living nightmare and also I hate you!

19 Quotes For When Anxiety Feels Completely Overwhelming

The truth of the matter is this, our negative emotions are just as important in our lives as our positive emotions.

I know that I, for one, used to view my negative emotions as things that were “bad”, that I needed to change. But in his new book, The Power Of Negative Thinking, Dr. Tim Lomas shows what he’s learned over the course of his career thus far — and a big part of that is how our understanding our negative emotions and letting them be can actually make us much more happier in the long run.

Here are some examples of the physical and mental benefits of our negative emotions. Now if you will excuse me, while you read I will go have a good cry.

1. Pulling Away When You’re Sad

When you go through something like a big break up, or you’re mourning the loss of a loved one, it’s totally normal to retreat from the world, wrap yourself up in a blanket and lay in your bed with only Netflix and the delivery guy for company and comfort. It’s just as normal for your friends to try and break you out of your funk.

But here’s the thing, neuroscientists have found that when you retreat this way your brain is telling your body to go into its own very necessary form of hibernation. It’s doing what it needs to do to let you heal and to help you feel stronger than ever. Let the streets know!

2. Crying Your Eyes Out

I cry at the drop of the hat. Happy, sad, angry, I am prone to cry. I used to get frustrated about this because as a working woman it’s a tough enough struggle as it is already without adding an ocean of tears into the equation. Plus, crying when you’re say, having a fight with a partner, completely undermines you leaving both parties frustrated.

Luckily there’s science behind our weeping. Tears remove toxins (including stress hormones), kill bacteria, and keep our mucus membranes moist and lubricated, making our sight better than ever. You know that great feeling of calm after a bout of weeping? There’s biology behind it! Crying clears up your perspective in more ways than one.

3. Feeling Incredibly Bored

When I was kid I was constantly complaining to my parents about being bored. My dad would cryptically respond to my complaints with “talk to me in twenty years.” I know what he means now, and I miss those days where I had even an extra to waste on a feeling like boredom.

It turns out I’m pining with good reason. A scientist discovered a strange pattern in our brain activity when we aren’t engaged in a specific task. He called this pattern the Default Mode Network (DMN). Today neuroscientists believe that the DMN plays a critical role in our artistic ideas, new thoughts, and sense of self. In short, when you think you’re bored you are probably right on track to be struck with a brilliant idea.

TERRIFYING: This Is What Happens To Your Body When You’re Stressed

4. When You’re Lonely

There is a real difference between feeling lonely and enjoy solitude. In the fuss of our constantly connected age, now more than ever we need to remember not just how to disconnect, but how to be alone, enjoying or solitude without feeling “lonely.”

Enjoying solitude can allow for your brain to “reboot,” helps bolster productivity, and solve problems with greater ease. There’s more to enjoying a night to yourself than eating a pint of ice cream and watching Mean Girls, science says so.

5. Those Times Anxiety Strikes

Anxiety is something we all experience in one form or another. Unless you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, daily anxiety can be helpful in encouraging you to test your boundaries, push yourself, and to be better prepared to face adversity.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield calls this embracing the power of negative thinking, and he’s right. Rather than looking at any of these negative feelings as hindrances, we should start seeing all the ways in which these natural and normal emotions help us in very real ways every day.

This guest article originally appeared on YourTango.com: 5 Scientific Reasons Anxious, Negative People Are Actually HEALTHIER.Save

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5 Ways to Live Well with Chronic Pain

How to Live WellNone of us ever set out to live a life with chronic pain and illness, but it happens. There comes that moment when you are sitting in yet another doctor’s office going over your symptoms for the third time that week, and the physician is simultaneously squinting his eyes, trying to make sense of your laundry list of complaints while scribbling something in your file — when you realize that your story might not ever have a Cinderella ending.

You panic. You may throw things (when you get home). Niagara Falls begins to erupt from your eyes. And then gradually, over time and much heartache, you embrace Plan B.

My Plan B was immersing myself into the wisdom of Toni Bernhard’s writing on the topic of chronic illness. In my opinion, there’s no one who understands the frustrations of being unfairly stymied in your life by an illness as well as Bernhard, but who offers a hopeful perspective without charging you with a bunch of actions that promises a “cure” like so many other self-help books do. Bernhard, a former law professor and dean of students at the University of California-Davis, caught a viral infection in May of 2001 on a trip to Paris and has been mostly housebound — often bedbound — since.

I read her first book, How To Be Sick, at a critical time in my recovery a year-and-a-half ago when I decided to start living around my symptoms instead of fighting against them on an hourly basis. Her insights have led me to peace, and helped me to embrace my illness in a way that has substantially reduced my suffering. Now, she has just published a new book, How to Live Well With Chronic Pain and Illness. Like her first book, it’s packed full of helpful advice, including skills to help with every day, how to communicate with family and friends, managing toxic thoughts and emotions, and dealing with isolation and loneliness.

Here are just a few favorite insights of mine that she offers in her book to help you live better with chronic pain and illness.

1. Be Kind to Yourself

One of my favorite chapters in Bernhard’s book is called “Letting Go: A Not-To-Do List for the Chronically Ill,” in which she compiles a fantastic list of eight things not to do:

  • Do not spend your precious energy worrying about how others view your medical condition.
  • Do not treat discouraging and disheartening thoughts or emotions as permanent fixtures in your mind.
  • Do not ignore your body’s pleas to say “no” to an activity.
  • Do not undertake a treatment just to please whoever is pressuring you to try it.
  • Do not be angry when people in your life don’t respond as you’d like.
  • Do not get hooked into believing you always have to “think positively.”
  • Do not put your pre-illness life on a pedestal.
  • Do not call yourself names or otherwise speak unkindly to yourself when you break one of your not-to-do rules.

They are all ways of learning how to be kind to yourself, which Bernhard would say is the most important lesson of all. “Self-compassion always comes first,” she writes. “If you think that treating yourself with compassion is too self-absorbed, remind yourself of the Buddha’s words: ‘If you search the whole world over, you will find no one who is dearer than yourself.’” We so often associate the word “kindness” with our actions to others, but it’s equally important to treat ourselves with respect and compassion.

2. Ask for Help

We’ve been taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In our culture, independence is valued over dependence. Learning how to ask for help takes practice for many of us. It’s a skill. Bernhard outlines some steps to hone this skill, and she reminds us that asking for help can actually be an act of kindness toward others. She writes, “Allowing them to help when you’re struggling with your health makes them feel LESS HELPLESS in the face of the new challenge in your life. It can mean a lot to someone to be able to aid a friend or family member who is struggling with his or her health.”

3. Learn How to Say “No”

This lesson has been one of the most difficult ones for me as a stage-four people-pleaser. Whenever I summoned up the courage to say “no” as a young girl, I endured silent treatments and other fun stuff. Going into my second decade with a chronic illness, however, I have no choice but to utter the two-letter word with regularity. That is, if I want to reduce my symptoms as much as possible. In responding to other people, Bernhard relies on Buddha’s teaching on skillful speech — we should speak only when what we have to say is true, kind, and helpful.

So when someone asks her to do something, she asks herself, “Would saying ‘no’ as opposed to ‘yes’ be true to myself? Would saying ‘no’ as opposed to ‘yes’ be kind and helpful to myself?” Think about this the next time you are asked to do something: Will your response be true to yourself, reflect your values, and EASE your suffering, as opposed to intensifying it? Or are you responding out of social pressure and a pattern of people-pleasing? Bernhard says it gets easier to say “no” as you begin to do it more often.

4. Don’t Feed the Want Monster

“Our desire to satisfy the Want Monster can feel so intense that we can talk ourselves into believing that getting what we want is necessary to our very ability to be happy,” writes Bernhard. For a long time, my deepest desire was to regain the good health that I enjoyed in my 20s. I could eat pizza and ice cream without suffering painful consequences. I enjoyed hosting parties with my husband. I didn’t have to keep a mood journal and assign each day a number between 0 (no death thoughts) and 5 (worrisome suicidal ideations), along with the day in my menstrual cycle, medications and supplements taken, and food and beverages consumed.

These two lines in Bernhard’s book enlightened me on how much energy I was wasting on trying to get back to my 27-year-old self: “The type of happiness that comes from satisfying the Want Monster is short-lived — because nothing is permanent … This conviction that the key to happiness is satisfying our desires sets us up for a big dose of disappointment and dissatisfaction with our lives.” After falling into that trap herself, she now realizes that the happiness that she wants comes from being content with her life as it is — and that is very attainable. She writes:

This happiness comes from making peace with the stark realities of life — that it’s a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, easy times and hard times, getting what I want and not getting what I want. It’s that way for everyone, and has always been. This happiness comes from opening my heart and mind to engage each day fully, even though I know it may be a day in which the Want Monster goes hungry.

5. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of turning your attention with care to the experience of the moment,” Bernhard explains. Her chapters teach us how to apply mindfulness to our illness — that is, how to pay attention to our physical and mental discomfort in a way that brings us to peace with our lives as they are at the moment. This can be done inside or outside the practice of formal meditation. It is about responding skillfully to emotions that can hijack our mind and identifying stressful thought patterns that can so often trigger physical reactions in the body. With practice, we can learn to catch the stories we tell ourselves that work against our well-being and mindfully let them go. Bernhard writes:

It took several years of chronic illness for me to recognize that I was causing myself undue mental suffering by spinning stressful stories about my physical discomfort and then accepting them as true without question simply because I had thought them. Mindfulness practice was the principle too that helped me realize was I was doing.

Join the Living with Chronic Illness group on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.
5 Ways to Live Well with Chronic Pain
5 Ways to Live Well with Chronic Pain
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