Can You Accept the Support of Friends?
I’ve written earlier here about the risk of talking to friends when you need support - or just someone to listen. It’s risky because you may find that even good friends might turn away when it comes to depression. Worse than that, they might tell you to get a grip, or one of the other stock phrases that show they don’t have a clue.
But there’s another side to this. I’ve had several friends who really wanted to help. I don’t mean friends who say the wrong thing with the best of intentions but folks who care for me and offer support without trying to tell me what to do. They offer the affection and love I need.
When I was depressed, though, it was hard to accept their support. It was often a gift I didn’t know how to use or wouldn’t let myself take. I’d just throw it away - or return to sender.
The severe depression I lived with for so long isolated me from everyone - especially from my wife and closest friends who offered so much.
Like many with depression, I used to shut myself off, seeking out a place where I could be alone - my office, a room at home, or some other place where I could hide. The door was firmly closed, the phone unanswered, any means of communication through the internet turned off. I’d try to lose myself in work but couldn’t concentrate, sometimes dozing off. Or I might take long naps during the day.
If we had visitors, I managed to avoid them much of the time. When with them, I wasn’t present, could hardly take part in any conversation. If we were meant to go off on an excursion together, I’d have an excuse not to go.
Emotionally, I felt either too bleak or too numb to connect with anyone. So even when I was there in person, I wasn’t really there at all.
I tried to disappear and rarely gave anyone a chance to get close or offer any sort of support.
That led to the strangest thing of all. Even if my wife or a close friend gave me a hug, told me how much they felt for me and offered any kind of help I might need, there were times when I literally couldn’t hear what they were saying. The words didn’t register in the slightest.
I suppose I might have heard and understood what they were saying at the time, but nothing could register in memory. Afterwards, it was as though I hadn’t even seen the person. The only way I later found out about that moment was if my wife happened to mention it. I’d be completely baffled - there wasn’t the slightest recollection.
Usually when I’m reminded of something, a memory will suddenly come back. But not from those depths of depression - zilch, not a glimmer.
The only thing I could compare it to is the split in awareness that I’ve experienced under an anesthetic in the early phase of a medical procedure or full-scale operation. The doctor and nurses needed to shut down pain but also be sure I could respond to their requests when they were getting me ready. As the drug took effect, I’d fall asleep, or I should say I’d lose awareness, just as if I were asleep.
But I wouldn’t be completely out. As they’d tell me later on, I was alert and did what they asked. Lie down here, lift your leg up for a second, turn this way, now that way, sit up for a second, lie down again. I guess that’s what happens if you walk in your sleep.
When depression did that - or something like it, you could talk to me all you wanted. I’m sure I’d respond in some way, but I wouldn’t remember a thing.
Refusing to Accept
There were other times, though, when I was perfectly aware of friends’ willingness to help but couldn’t accept their support. How could I believe I was worthy of their affection or appreciation when I was continually tearing myself down? That mindset was central to depression for me from the beginning - meaning childhood.
My depressed mind could only dwell on how bad I was - getting me to attack myself the way an autoimmune disease makes the body’s defenses destroy what they’re meant to protect. I often think of depression that way, as undermining the immune system of the mind and soul.
In the depths of depression, I could only respond to praise and love by showing whoever was offering support how wrong they were. I might do that by immediately replying with words that were edgy, cynical, perhaps openly insulting. It’s as if I were trying to prove that they were mistaken, that I was a terrible person, poison to their kindness.
When I wasn’t depressed, I could offer lots of affection and support to my friends and listen responsively to their problems. Even then, however, it was hard to receive affection in return. I was usually affirmation-proof, and words of kindness and love rolled off my back.
One blogging buddy has a self-esteem file to help her with this problem. She keeps letters and notes from friends, appreciative comments from her readers and other mementoes. When she’s in a bleak mood, she takes it out and reads the kind things her friends have said. It’s an important way of reminding herself of the support they’ve offered. Without that help, depression would dissolve the memory of anything good she might have done. That file is a good idea.
One of the many blessings of recovery has been changing these destructive beliefs about myself. As simple as it seems, I know I’m human like everyone else and work hard to knock off any recurring depressive thoughts about being less than that. And so I can hear when support is offered, take strength and feel love and gratitude in return.
I look back with regret on those moments of turning off support and pushing away those closest to me. But I don’t beat myself up with those memories, as I used to do.
How about you? I know that many have no one to turn to or get support from, and that’s a huge problem. But have there been times when you just haven’t been able to accept the offer of affection and support? When you couldn’t believe you would ever deserve it?
John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.