My last depressive episode left me completely isolated. I didn’t respond to messages for months. Since I didn’t know how long I would be depressed, answering the question “how are you?” became emotionally draining. Actually, that one question was why I stopped talking to people entirely.
“How are you?” is such a knee-jerk opening line to a conversation; most of us don’t even realize we’re saying it, or pay much attention to the typical response of, “I’m good.” But I wasn’t good, or even okay, and saying it just to get past that question felt like a lie I didn’t want to explain.
I never would’ve guessed that I could go such a long period of time without talking to anyone. I know now how painful it was for those who cared about me not to hear anything despite their repeated attempts to reach out.
Peer support—“peer” defined both as friends and as those who identify as having mental illness—can be profoundly helpful to the recovery process and to help keep symptoms at bay. I could’ve really benefited from this kind of support during my depression, but my lack of communication with my friends and family led me to struggle in silence.
Feeling Empathy For Those Who Are Trying
When that dark cloud finally lifted, I was intrigued by how difficult it was for me to communicate with the people I cared about during my episode. I didn’t want to go through that again. I wanted to learn how to be better at communicating, especially in the thick of a depressive episode.
So I read the book, “There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” It includes many wonderful examples of how and when to say or do something, and when it’s best to say nothing at all and just listen. It’s a relatively short, easy read considering the depth of knowledge it contains about difficult conversations. Some of the scenarios included made me cringe as I reflected on things I’ve said that were less than ideal.
This book was immensely helpful in learning empathy for those trying to make a connection with me during my episode. I learned that my negative reaction to my friends asking me how I was doing was because depression had changed my perception. The book helped me understand that people might say uncomfortable or insensitive things—“how are you doing?”—when they are genuinely trying to connect but don’t know what to say or what may negatively impact someone.
Learning Essential Communication Skills
I also learned how I could be a better support system for my friends facing adversities, because we all end up being the supportive friend at one time or another. Conversations are a two-way street, even if one person is doing most of the talking. How you listen and respond can change the tone and outcome of a conversation. In “There is No Good Card for This,” you can find out what type of listener you are and what you can do to improve or change the way you respond. This can help build confidence during a difficult conversation.
Here are a few tips from the book to start working on:
- Don’t judge or assume. People deal with life’s hurts in various ways. It’s easy to say how we would behave in a friend’s situation, but trust that your friend is doing what’s best for him/her, even if you don’t agree with it.
- Listening speaks volume about how much you care. It can be much easier to listen than to find the perfect thing to say. Try to avoid asking clarifying questions or offering suggestions and anecdotal stories in an attempt to connect unless you know this is what your friend wants. If unsure, ask if he or she would prefer for you to listen for support or brainstorm helpful next steps.
- Small gestures make a big difference: Some people are better at showing they care than expressing it in words. Clipping coupons for everyday essentials, preparing and delivering their favorite meal, or gifting a massage are just a few examples.
Realizing Mistakes Are Just Learning Opportunities
At the end of the day, just knowing my friends cared enough to reach out meant the world to me. I isolated myself because I felt emotionally fragile and didn’t want to be asked how I was doing. I still wanted to cheer and root for them, and to tell them how proud I was of them despite my depression; I just didn’t want them to ask how I was because I was still trying to figure that out. I now know that I could have expressed that sentiment, and my friends would have understood. It sounds so easy in hindsight, but I couldn’t even get past “how are you?” to tell them.
Please know that you are not alone if you’ve ever felt like this, and if you would like to talk to someone without fear of judgment, please call the NAMI HelpLine for references to mental health resources—including support groups—in your area or online. If you’d like to speak with a trained peer support specialist, the NAMI HelpLine can also give you a local number that you can call 24/7.
Traditional classrooms do not include courses with the sole purpose of teaching emotional intelligence, sensitivity and empathy, so those lessons tend to come from life experience. It’s important to remember to be kind to yourself and others as you navigate through difficult situations. Look back on mistakes as learning opportunities.
I have learned through this experience that if someone is reaching out to you, their heart is probably in the right place, even if they can’t find the “right” words.
Keiko Purnell is a NAMI HelpLine Volunteer.