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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Being depressed did not make me “an innocent in hell”

People suffering from clinical depression are often likened to an innocent in hell by medical professionals and their loved ones. It always stems from a well-meaning attempt to lift the depressed individual from the quicksand of self-loathing and self-beratement. You are not any of those things you say you are. You are not evil, you are not selfish. I know you. You are an amazing person and you are suffering due to no fault of your own. Basically, an innocent in hell.

I disagree. Yes, it was never my fault that I was depressed, but I am in many ways flawed, just as you are. I am not innocent, just as you’re not.

The only difference is that those who are depressed feel the weight of their flaws, and the flaws of others (though mostly their own), far more intensely than those who are not depressed.

While deep in depression, I mulled and mulled over how I hadn’t fulfilled my duties as a daughter, how I’d been too absent as an older sister, how I was too uncaring as a friend, how I was a terrible girlfriend, how I’d been irresponsible with the resources entrusted to me, how I’d wasted so many opportunities in my life, how I was terribly hypocritical as a Christian. All those things are true to a certain extent. It’s just that while depressed, I was so crushed under guilt and regret and I wasn’t able to be realistic or to move forward.

And as we all know, depression distorts our perception. The key word here is distort. Depression doesn’t just make stuff up out of thin air to torment you. Depression reaches into the recesses of your memories, pulling up real memories of real thoughts you’ve had, real things you’ve said, and real things you’ve done (or have not done, as the case may be). You become hyperaware of these things — your flaws, deficiencies, failures — and that’s all you can think of. You’re so aware, too aware, that these images eclipse any positives you might still remember. And yes, it later magnifies them, such that you come to think that the damage is so big that you can’t ever do anything to rectify things.

And then the self-fulfilling prophecy is set in motion. Believing I was an irrevocably depraved person, I started thinking and behaving like an irreparably depraved person. I would sometimes try to drag my then-boyfriend down into “hell” with me so I wouldn’t be so alone in my inescapable misery. I shudder at this confession, thinking about how I acted like the thief who “comes only to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).

Too often, though, we are told that “depression lies to you”. I cannot count the number of times I heard this while deep in the throes of depression. I have a big problem with this phrase. It creates in the mind of the depressed person an impossible dichotomy: either I am the horrible person I make myself out to be in my head, or I am completely innocent of all the things I am accusing myself of. It seemed like wishful thinking to believe the latter, and so I’d stubbornly cling to my own (distorted) assessment of myself. The fact of the matter is that I am neither of those things, and there exists that middle ground we are so afraid to tread: I may not be a good person, but I can change that. And I have to start somewhere. Will you help me?

Thanks to medication, counseling, prayer, spiritual direction, and the support of those who love me, I am now a lot better. But I choose to remember the things that were brought to the surface while I was deeply depressed. They are real and I am making use of the energy and optimism I now have to seek healing. In myself, I am hoping, by the grace of God, to overcome my flaws. And in my relationships with other people, I am seeking to love and serve better, with Christ as my guide. He, after all, is the great physician.

There is great temptation for those coming out of depression to frolic in “the land of the living”, leaving all the pain behind. I fell into this temptation as I recovered from my previous cycle of depression. I was too eager to see myself as a good person, and I swept all my failings back under the rug, where they’d been for so many years of my life. But I now believe that God allows us to go through suffering not just so we can appreciate its absence. Suffering can grow, refine, and even heal us. We just need to sift through the rubble to find those hidden treasures. St Faustina wrote: Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Saviour; in suffering love becomes crystallised; the greater the suffering, the purer the love.

I would encourage anyone, clinically depressed or not, to occasionally sit amidst the rubble and ask God what you ought to do with the mess around you. Mend those broken relationships. Forgive those you haven’t forgiven (including yourself). Ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged (intentionally or unintentionally). Overcome those self-indulgent habits. Pursue a vocation that, rather than helping you not to run away from the messiness of the world, allows you play a role in healing it. And be there for those who were there for you, as well as those who weren’t, because you now understand the darkness of suffering alone, and you understand the power of solidarity and grace.

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Let’s support the Mott family

Omari Mott Get Well Fund

Imagine my shock when one of my students told me that his table partner had been shot in the face. “I’m not lying, everyone’s talking about it,” he insisted. I had to wait till the end of the last period to give said student’s mom a call. “Mrs. Mott, I heard from a few students that something happened to Omari over the weekend, so I just wanted to check in to find out if everything is okay,” I said with as much nonchalance as I was able to feign. If it was all a false rumor, I didn’t want to offend her unnecessarily. If it was true, I imagined the worst had happened and I didn’t want to say anything that might aggravate matters.

It turned out to be true. But truly by the grace of God, the bullet had missed all vital organs, and was lodged mere centimeters from his spine. Omari was going to need some facial reconstruction because his jaw had been shattered, but he isn’t paralyzed, and suffered neither brain damage nor loss of vision. Most importantly, he’s alive.

The surgery was successful, and Omari’s going to look good as new in approximately 6 weeks, but the road to recovery is going to be very challenging. For 6 weeks, he will have his jaws wired shut and screwed together, which means no talking and no food or drinks. It also means being fed intravenously, and having a tracheostomy tube inserted into his windpipe to facilitate breathing.

IMG_0190 It’s been heartbreaking to see my most amiable, free-spirited, curious, and creative student in such a state. Imagine what it must be like for his parents. I once showed up after work at 4 PM, and his mom hadn’t eaten anything all day. Amidst all the physical and emotional exhaustion, their love for their son has been most evident. Over the last two weeks, Shelby and Zimberland have been by his side almost 24/7, which is important because Omari wouldn’t be able to call for help should something happen while he was unattended, and have not been able to work since the shooting happened.

In another wonderful bundle of answered prayers, Omari is now eligible to be transferred to a transitional care facility (that typically only admits those aged 18 and above) with 24/7 care, and even an extra bed that would allow his parents to get better rest. The change in environment is going to be welcome change for his emotional and psychological well-being. And there, Shelby and Zimberland would also receive proper instruction on how to attend for Omari when he’s eventually discharged to recover at home.

Brothers and sisters, I ask that you join me in praying for the beautiful Mott family, as well as assisting them financially during this difficult time. You can contribute any amount securely through the Omari Mott Get Well Fund set up by his father. Our contributions will help to subsidize the costs of transitional care and rehabilitation. There, you’ll also find a personal message from Shelby and and Zimberland Mott, two incredible, tireless, and selfless parents.

It’s already a tremendous blessing to be able to teach a wonderful young man like Omari; to see him fighting strong and remaining in good spirits (smiling and giving thumbs-ups) has been truly inspiring. And through this ordeal, God has also granted me the honor of getting to know his amazing parents, who truly embody Christ’s self-giving love.

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Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Related posts: “It all started with tea.”, My students are helping me recover from depression