You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person

When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary not because they are afraid it might be contagious (hey, many don’t even recognize it as an illness!), but because they are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

A friend once apologized to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been reaching out to you or being there for you. I’m not like J — I wish I were, but I’m not. But know that I’ve been praying for you, okay?”

At the time, I smiled and told him not to worry about it. I read between the lines and I read his facial expressions — I knew what he was saying was that he wasn’t good at empathizing and didn’t want to do or say things that might end up aggravating matters. We exchanged hugs and parted ways for the remainder of the academic year. But that night I wept in my room. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I cried over the silliest things after all.

I know why now. I felt abandoned by a friend. Sure, he wasn’t my best friend, and I did have other close friends who were walking the journey with me, but when an individual walks out on your life, his/her absence can’t be compensated by quantity. The next time I saw him, it would be the beginning of a new academic year, and I’d have already recovered over the summer. We hung out again and were friends once more. This was no isolated case. It happened again, and again, with different people.

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But my friends are not bad people. They are wonderful people. They did not stop being my friend during depressive episodes because they were tired of me. In fact, I don’t think they even intended to stop being my friend. And I’m sure they believe they were doing what was best for me. From their point of view, they were temporarily stepping out of my life so someone more “qualified” could step in to take better care of me. Someone who would have the right things to say, someone who perhaps have gone through the same thing I was going through, someone who could give good advice. Basically, someone who could empathize.

And yes, I wished I had people in my life who fit the above descriptions, and I was indeed blessed with at least one such individual, but it didn’t erase the deep pain of being “left behind”. And one thing I’ve come to realize over a few cycles of depression is this: depressed people don’t need you to empathize; they just need you. A depressed person would rather have you say all the worst possible things, rather than not have you at all.

It is very difficult to understand what a depressed person is going through. That is an inescapable fact. But even a fellow depression fighter/survivor would not be able to understand completely, since disorders of the mind affect each individual as uniquely as his mind is unique.

But a general common theme is that the depressed individual experiences and perceives a reality different from that of the non-depressed individual. I remember despairing not because I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but because I came to believe there was nothing from which to recover. I didn’t believe I had a negative cognitive bias, but believed that it’s others who had a positive cognitive bias, while I saw my existence for what it truly was.

Loved ones of those who are depressed, you have a very tricky and very important task of holding their hand and walking together, even though you are walking in different realities, until you are once more reunited at the end of the tunnel. This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?

Someone very dear to me had no experience whatsoever with depression. He bought himself a book on the topic (The Catholic Guide to Depression, which I’ve recommended multiple times in previous posts) in an attempt to understand what I was going through. It’s safe to say that even after a year, he never came close to understanding, but what mattered was that he never stopped walking with me. He never got tired of me even when I got tired of myself. And he never stopped believing that God would deliver me even when I’d lost all hope. You have my eternal gratitude.

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327 thoughts on “You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person”

  1. Nicely said, your post gives me alot of information and reassurance. My sister is depressed and is affecting her life . I am trying to be there for her eventhough she is denying that depression is affecting her life. It is hard to deal with her but I am praying that someday she will snap out of it …and be her old self again….Your blog gave me hope and strength that my helping is for nothing … thank you…. I thing alot of people will find your post very usefull. I wish you all the best….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can definitely relate. I wasn’t diagnosed but i knew i was depressed all of highschool. Sometimes even now, but im much stronger now. I found out my family is emotioally abusive and now im majoring in psychology so i can understand, heal and help others. I know that what helped was just talking to someone, not who had the right words exactly, but someone who would listen and just encourage, even when i didnt believe them. A mentor at school would be there, not just to listen but make sure i had food and resources and a good laugh. i wish everybody, especially those depressed, would have that.

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  3. Really touching and insightful post. Without being a religious proselyte (for what it’s worth I’m a NP Catholic), I will say that The Bible, this most recent bout, gave me such a profound sense of calm, more so than any self-help book I’ve ever read. I felt like I was going straight to the source, and it was grounding, humbling and inspiring to realize that others have gone through what I have, many times over. I’ve struggled with bipolar II and OCD since 14 and won the genetic lottery (kidding), as mental illness runs on all sides of my family. My sister’s bipolar manifested later for her, and she recently spent about a year on the street while my paternal relatives turned their backs on her. It’s definitely an issue that puts character to the test and reveals who’s who in your life. My mom and maternal grandparents have been pillars of support, so we’re lucky. Anyway, kudos to you.

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  4. Thanks for bringing this up. Depression is so much worse during the Holidays. Its a constant reminder of the emptiness/ lonliness. If you know someone suffering, go spend some time with that person and talk about it with them.

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  5. “This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?”

    I can’t tell you in words, how this has moved me! It never hit me before, that a person in ‘depression’ is one inside a tunnel. I have seen people who found it a dead end, and I’ve said how it is not, but never did I care to allegorise to a tunnel. Like every tunnel, this has two ends, and it takes all the light in you to transcend its darkness and reach the other end. But, trust me, after having reached the other end, even if there’s no beloved waiting for you there, once you look back at the tunnel, its all light, cause u have transcended all possible darkness. Sight led you to the tunnel, and took ur insight to drive you out of it. I hope you’d find what I wanted to say in detail here:
    http://seethehologram.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/darkness-cast-its-shadow/

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  6. Reblogged this on kreborn17 and commented:
    This affects me personally because I deal with the depression rollercoaster. I just need someone to simply be there to encourage me, to inspire me, guide me toward the light, and other things when I go through the lows and mediums. I have those people, my mom spurs me on and tells me the things I need to hear especially the things that I have forgotten about myself.

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  7. I can really relate to this. I have experienced about 5 episodes of clinical depression in my life and with each one came friendship loss. People just seem to disappear. Unlike you I’ve struggled to still believe these people are all good people, after all, if they were then why did they desert me in my hour of need after I had been there for them? There seems to be something about mental health that freaks people out and they run away, but you’re right, all you need is for them to be there, not particularly doing or saying anything, but their presence is a great help if they could just do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have a strange mentality in that if I don’t think about or mention something for a while, I forget that it exists for a while, so to speak. It’s like selective cognizance, essentially. Anyway, I have someone very, very close to me who is battling depression and we just don’t talk about it. My selective cognizance kicks in, I forget all about it for a while, and we live as if it’s not even there. And I mean that in the sense that I don’t treat him any differently than I would treat him if he wasn’t depressed.

    I loved your article, though. Very true and very well written.

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  9. When I was diagnosed with PTSD (combined with depression) I went home and looked it up as I had never even heard the term. One thing I learned right off was that it is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Nineteen years later I have worked hard to manage all my baggage with reasonably decent coping skill. I will pray for you that He who is greater. May He fill you with peace, His peace which passes all understanding. You do not walk alone and you are loved.

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  10. I battle similiar demons. I want you to know how much this story has touched my heart. I understand what its like for people not to be with you. I have 2 friends with depression and when they come out of it they always thank me for doing anything i can even if its texting with them for hours. I admire your bravery for telling your situtation and want you to know you are in my prayers. Merry Christmas.

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  11. Well said. Unfortunately, you echo the thoughts of most people suffering depression. Well done for writing so articulately and eloquently about an illness which isolates on so many levels. Depressed people do not want to be left alone, they want to be cared about and loved.

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  12. Just to let you know Karen that I have reblogged part of your post “You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person” on a post I have written called “In the Valley”. I hope that I have your permission to do so. Thank you.

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