(Yes a long read, meaning that at the
bottom, a winged reward awaits you)
Depression is not something we can cure with just a few cheerful words. People who think they can, are just as simplistic as someone who wants to cure a high fever by telling you to cool down.
Smilies? In my book, smilies are all those people who really think they can help you with a little cheap pep talk. Each one of us has encountered them. To quote myself:
They are nice people: sometimes even good friends. They certainly have the best intentions. But when confronted with your serious state of depression, they simply do not know what to say or what to do. So they hide their uneasiness (or even panic) behind a wide encouraging smile, and they start saying supposedly-helpful things. “You’ll see, tomorrow you’ll feel better again” or “You’ll be alright, just believe me” or “It’s not all as bad as you think, really” and so on.
The problem is that smilies don’t seem to understand the effect of their own vapid pep talk. Their smile and their words make things only worse. [...] To you, their smilie attitude shows that they don’t grasp your actual feelings, or worse, that they don’t take your feelings seriously. In your depressed perception, all they prove is that they are indeed some kind of aliens from Mars.
(quote from my 2010 Smilie post)
For a collection of typical smilie platitudes, see this list at the Wing of Madness depression blog: The 99 Worst Things to Say to Someone Who’s Depressed. It’s a list that has been circulating online since 1995, but it might still be a good idea to hand this one out to some of our friends.
One of the problems we (the depressed) keep running into is that so many well-meaning depression websites show the same naive approach and the same adverse effect. Those are the sites that mostly try to cheer you up with empty words, that keep throwing hollow “inspirational” phrases in your face, phrases that will only make you feel more lost and misunderstood.
I’ve once seen a webpage about depression that gave as #1 advice, seriously, “Be Happy”. No wonder someone added the comment “Gee, what a good idea! How stupid of me I never thought of that!”
With my own blog here I’ve always tried to give simple, unpretentious, rational tips and opinions: I certainly don’t want to become one of those lofty but unrealistic smilies myself.
So you thought the doodle in StayOnTop’s blue top banner was meant to represent my mission here? Well to some extent it does, but just as often you can rather take it as a picture of my situation – one that we, the depressed, frequently find ourselves in:
And in fact the problem goes beyond words. My post three years ago had a tip for well-meaning smilies: I told them “one hug may be better than a thousand words”.
I still think that basically this holds true. But I also fear that there can be situations (really bad depressions, that is) where even a warm cuddling hug may drop on cold barren earth and will not help – or even have the wrong effect. If only because you’re not yet ready for it. After all, when you’re still deeply depressed, you probably feel you don’t deserve that hug…
The Communication Gap
Many people don’t fully realize how we, the depressed, sometimes are lost and locked in a frightening dark universe far away from all helpers, friends, comforters, smilies, therapists even. Their world is not always ours. Frequently, we live in different worlds.
Psychotherapists of course do know this already. That’s why some of them will start a new therapy with a few sessions full of seemingly trivial idle talk, while you as a client sit impatiently waiting for them to get to the point.
Such chitchat is not just meant to put you it ease. It is a kind of preliminary exploration, a reconnaissance mission from a safe distance. It can help therapists to decide where and how to make a bridge between their own analytic, sensible universe and the dark, cold universe that you are locked in.
And even when therapists manage to build such a bridge (to get closer to you and to eventually draw you closer again towards the world of the living) this bridge remains shaky and frightening. At times it’s almost breaking but it must be crossed somehow. A bit like the frayed rope bridges that Indiana Jones always encounters when on the run.
The fragility of such a bridge between the two worlds is one of the main reasons why even successful psychotherapy so often will take a long, looooooooong time. For any single step on that wobbling bridge can feel like a breathtaking risk.
Maybe this also explains why the exhortations by smilies often feel more infuriating than helpful? You, in the clutches of your depression, stand completely frozen in front of that rope bridge. And from the other side a smilie yells at you: “Come on now, what are you waiting for? Really, the ravine is not as deep as it looks!”
Would that help?
When I think about this, I must conclude that the problem with smilies is not just their lack of empathy or experience. Yes, they don’t quite understand how depression is a different, terrible world. But there’s a secondary problem with them as well: often, they lack the patience we need to communicate from one world to another.
Of course we cannot just blame others for the communication gap. Evidently, a major part of the problem lies with ourselves too. Our own part of the problem can be summarized in three words: “Leave me alone”. In a really deep depression, any form of contact with someone else (even a sensible, patient, loving one) can feel so exhausting and painful, that we’d rather avoid it.
In such a situation we feel so alone that (paradoxically) being in touch with anyone else may make us feel even more alone. So out of fear and exhaustion, we can ask to be left alone… because we’re so alone. But such a self-shielding attitude is in fact a depression-shielding attitude: it does not make things any better, to say the least.
I promised to never give you cheap pep talk. So if we’re realistic, no, there is no easy solution for this communication problem, this perception gap. Which does not mean there are no solutions at all. But these all involve a long, arduous, breathtaking step-by-step journey across the wobbly rope bridge that spans the deep and dark Ravine of Hopelessness.
Patience is an important requirement for those who want to help us. But for ourselves, from our own depression-locked perspective, the most important thing is to bravely (swallow, close your eyes, take a deep breath) take that First Little Step.
In my own experience, when your depression is so bad that words don’t work – when it is so bad that you want to blurt out “Please leave me alone” – this first little step might be not saying something, but doing something. And I mean this literally: if you cannot talk, try to share some kind wordless activity. Try it regardless how totally futile, silly and pointless this may seem from your own depressed perspective.
Any shared, wordless activity may help to re-establish some form of contact between your universe and the world of the others. Perhaps this would even help to build or repair that very rope bridge that you’ll need to cross eventually to the other side again.
A few silly, futile, pointless examples? You could try taking a wordless walk together. Or you could try playing a wordless game together, no matter if it is Scrabble or chess. OK, maybe Scrabble is not the perfect example of a wordless game, but you get the point. If that’s asking too much, then you could even sit on the couch together to wordlessly watch some futile and silly TV cartoon: South Park? Family Guy? Whatever.
Seriously now. If words don’t work, find something you can join in together, wordlessly. Try it. Try. You never know: it might work. It might even work so well that it might bring the next step (exchanging a few meaningful words) comes within reach.
Oh, and to prevent any misunderstandings: I did not want to suggest that some shared activity, or some meaningful words, will always work well or will always be what you need. For example, even your most talk-oriented analytic Freudian psychotherapist will admit that some people, sometimes, may initially be helped better by some pills than by words. Or helped best by both.
Yes, I write this while still taking my daily prescribed tricyclic antidepressant. If I didn’t take them, maybe I could not write here at all.
Barbara’s Black Eagle
One thing we all need (I’m 100% sure of that) is music. With or without words. Music can help us. To demonstrate this, here is the amazing song l’Aigle Noir, The Black Eagle, by the great Jewish-French singer Barbara (Monique Serf).
When Barbara first sang this chanson, in 1970, one of the reasons why it appealed to so many was the poetry of her words. If you listened to it, it was a kind of fairy tale, full of melodious mystery.
To give you a too-brief summary, Barbara sings how one beautiful day (“or night”) when she lies asleep, a huge glittering black eagle bursts from the sky. It lands and begins touching her with its beak and wings. It has come to her with shiny jewels from the past, from the faraway land of childhood dreams, when you could pick the stars from the sky… Finally the eagle takes flight again. Disappearing into the clouds, it leaves her shivering, cold and alone.
But what did this song actually mean? And even more important, what did it mean to Barbara herself?
It was not until 1998, a year after her death, that this became clear. In her unfinished memoirs, Barbara revealed that The Black Eagle had been inspired by a childhood trauma: the never-told trauma of how as a girl of ten, she had been sexually abused by her father. This was what she had actually been singing about. She had never been able to talk about it.
But she could sing. So here is Barbara, with The Black Eagle. And the healing power of music. I’ve chosen not the 1970 studio version but a less polished recording from a later live concert.
• the concluding tip: If someone tries to talk you out of a deep depression, and the words don’t work at all, instead of talking try to do something together. Something simple, without words, anything: it doesn’t matter what.
Often this works better than a bizarre (bizarre-feeling) conversation that only makes you feel more alone and depressed.
• the bonus tip: As for singing yourself, therapeutically speaking it might certainly work for any of us. For myself, trying to sing, or even hum along, can really work as an antidepressant.
But do think twice before recording yourself. I did that once, and in my case, listening back was not a good idea.
• footnote: The rope bridge in the image above is the famous one to Carrick-a-Rede island, in Northern Ireland. Sometimes tourists who managed to cross this bridge are so traumatized by the experience that they don’t dare to cross it again: meaning they are stuck on the barren island and must be fetched by a boat.
Isn’t that almost like how we sometimes can get stuck in depression and need help from others to get out of it?